You Can’t Go Home Again… Or Can You?

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20160806_130542“δὶς ἐς τὸν αὐτὸν ποταμὸν οὐκ ἂν ἐμβαίης.”

Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 BC – 475 BC) said this. He’s also the guy who introduced the term “Logos,” meaning “order” and “knowledge.” It’s more commonly referred to as “logic” and, together with Ethos and Pathos, represents one of the three modes of persuasion identified by Aristotle in Rhetoric (350 BC).

Oh, yeah, if you’re like me and can’t read Greek, Heraclitus’s quote translates to: “You could not step twice into the same river.” And therein lies our tale.

Oddly, I found inspiration for this Commentary while researching for my upcoming book Greater Western New York a State? Why Not? I found myself in the small (population 3,210) town of Westminster, Vermont taking pictures of buildings that no longer exist and of grave markers that no longer exist. There, on the terraced riverbank high above the west side of the Connecticut River, I met a woman kind enough to open the museum for me on a Saturday (it has regular hours only on Sundays). I quickly discovered she could proudly trace her heritage back to the pre-Revolutionary War settlers of the tiny town. And she noted all the other current residents that could just as proudly do the same.

What keeps generations clinging to the homes of their ancestors?  That’s a question I couldn’t stop asking myself as I walked through the Westminster cemetery, seeing the same names repeated from tombstone to tombstone. Then I reflected how I’ve been twice lucky enough to walk among the medieval dwellings of the walled city from whence, it seems, all Carosas come.

But, though it be the home of my ancestors, I cannot claim it as my ancestral home. The closest I could come to naming such a place is Lackawanna, New York. A once thriving city of steel (indeed, it was named after the steel company Buffalo leaders convinced to relocate from Scranton, Pennsylvania in the early 1900s), it housed (and continues to house) successive waves of immigrants. I was born into that upsurge just at the tail end of the crest of the Italian wave.

My young family moved from there when I was three, but the older generation stayed a bit longer – long enough for me to see what I (and my mother and her siblings) consider the old family homestead. (This homestead consisted of two three story multi-family brick homes). Just a short walk down the street sits St. Anthony’s, the parish my parents were married in, I was baptized in, and where I received my First Holy Communion.

St. Anthony’s represents the ideal community parish. It served the people of its neighborhood (and beyond, for we continued to go there even though we had moved two parishes away). Run by a deep-voiced Italian named Father Billota – who bore a striking resemblance to Vince Lombardi – St. Anthony’s reached its peak of 450 families before we moved forever away to a place called Chili.

Today, like many Catholic churches, St. Anthony’s survives but a shell of its former self. As the Italians moved away, newer immigrant classes moved into the neighborhood. First came those of Puerto Rican heritage, then those of Mexican lineage, and then those from the ghettos of the City of Buffalo. Finally came the Muslims (remember that infamous “Lackawanna Six”? The part of “Lackawanna” they’re referring to is the neighborhood in and around St. Anthony’s).

Today, St. Anthony’s has just a couple hundred families. It doesn’t even have a priest. Still, those who remain remember St. Anthony’s is there to serve its community, and it continues to do so with a vigor and dedication sometimes missing from larger pastor-based (rather than neighborhood-based) Catholic churches.

So, with that as a backdrop, when the time came for my brother and I to decide where to jointly celebrate the renewal of our vows commemorating our milestone anniversaries (his 30th, my 25th), we were flummoxed. He was married at St. Pius X in Chili and I was married in Mendon at St. Catherine’s. More importantly, we wanted our extended family to be there with us. That’s the family that once called Lackawanna home. They still live in the Buffalo area.

That’s when the lightbulb went off – why not have the ceremony at St. Anthony’s? After all, it was the place where it all started. Besides, we were sure it would stir up a bit of a nostalgic air for the extended family. As an added bonus, our immediate family (that would be my parents and their children) thought it was a great idea.

Imagine our surprise when we announced the location to my aunts and uncles at my nephew’s graduation only to receive a rather tepid response. I’m lying if I didn’t say I was disappointed.

Then I realized why. Actually, I realized why when I made a preliminary excursion to St. Anthony’s, in part to show my own kids the place and the surrounding neighborhood. It struck me that what carries the excitement of novelty to my children and their cousins is nothing more than a reminder of the depressing passage of time to the generation above me. I see what once was and reflect on those happy days, comfortable knowing I was lucky enough to have had such happy days as a child. My aunts and uncles, no doubt, look at the same scene and are burdened by the memories of what once was, knowing it is now gone forever. To wit: The two family homes are now two separate homes, separated by a ramshackle fence; The neighboring home, once the domain of a very scary dog my uncles threatened to feed me to, is now an empty lot; and, the once fertile 30 foot tall “blackberry” tree, that long ago saw my great-grandfather pick fruit from, just so I could have a taste, has disappeared.

You can return to the place where you were born, but it’s not the same. This is what Heraclitus meant when he said you can’t step into the same river twice. Time, like the river’s current, rushes on, endlessly changing the landscape, moving each today to a slowly diminishing yesterday. Yes, Ella Winter was correct when she told Thomas Wolfe, “Don’t you know you can’t go home again?”

Or can you?

I had hoped renewing our vows at St. Anthony’s would give the family a chance to remember. I resigned myself to failure in this regard. Yes, quite a few family members attended the ceremony. Still others, mainly due to busy schedules, couldn’t. In the rush of events, I didn’t even get a chance to slow down and spend the time to talk to attendees in the old family parish – we had to move out before the four o’clock Mass started.

And, so, I left. On to the low-key reception, in a far different, more forward looking venue (my cousin’s new restaurant). And that, I expected, would be that…

It started as a trickle, then became a steady stream, and then, magically, it began to pour.

Little by little, family members began posting pictures of the Lackawanna neighborhood on Facebook. They weren’t just pictures of our actual ceremony. There were plenty of those, too, but they seemed to merely whet the appetite for what came next. No, these were pictures of those two aged brick edifices. Once the pictures were posted, then the comments came. And from the comments came more stories, more memories.

But the coup de grâce was a picture my cousin took of her father’s (my uncle) furtive graffiti painted on one of those bricks just below the second story window. As the story’s told, more than a half century ago, he leaned out of that kitchen window and – upside down, mind you – painted his name on that brick.

Like that memory, the name remains (quite clearly) on that brick.

Perhaps we can go back home again. If we close our eyes and pore deep into our memory, we can journey back to a time that once was, a place that’s not there anymore, and a feeling – oh that feeling – that we never ever want to let go of.

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