Why I Can’t Let Go of My Childhood Home

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In a drawer in the living room of my childhood home, you can find the drumsticks I got in elementary school, the calculator I used in middle school, and a to-do list I wrote in high school. (“Shoes—tell mom,” it reads, and, in all caps: “CUT NAILS.”) In my bedroom are prom pictures, concert posters, a photo of my round-faced teen self printed for a fake ID I never got. In the bathroom: expired acne medication; crunchy, dried-up mascara; an old retainer. My mother, who still lives in the house, would like me to clear out my stuff. I keep stalling.

The funny thing is, I’m not all that attached to these objects. I could throw most of them away after a few moments of bemused recollection; the pictures, I could take back with me to Brooklyn. But that would make it possible for my mom to sell the house, which she’s been trying to do for years. I can’t seem to stop standing in the way.

Why? If home is “where the heart is” or “wherever I’m with you,” I should be fine with my mom moving anywhere—especially to a nearby apartment, as she plans to, where she’ll doubtless have a place for me to sleep whenever I want. Instead, any mention of a future sale prompts an ache akin to the homesickness I felt as a kid at summer camp—except that now I ache for my future self. I imagine her standing outside that suburban New Jersey house, pacing back and forth, insisting that some piece of her remains in this one edifice on a certain corner of a specific street, even though she hasn’t lived there for decades.

It’s a weird, anticipatory grief—but it’s not unfounded. For his 2011 book, Returning Home: Reconnecting With Our Childhoods, Jerry M. Burger, a Santa Clara University psychologist, interviewed hundreds of people and found that about a third had traveled as adults to visit a childhood home; another third hoped to. The subjects who’d made the trip largely no longer had parents in the house; in many cases, they arrived unannounced, ready to knock and ask the residing strangers to let them in. Others discovered that their old home physically no longer existed. Giving up such a formative space, Burger told me, is “like a dancer losing a leg. It’s a really important part of you. And now it’s gone.” So many people cried during interviews that Burger started arriving with tissues.

You might think that only people with rosy childhood memories would feel compelled home, perhaps to relive their golden days or try to regain some of the comfort of being young. But that’s not true—some of Burger’s subjects had experienced such trauma at home that going back was probably a terrible idea; one person turned and ran out of the space immediately after setting foot inside it. Rather, Burger found, people with all kinds of relationships to where they grew up shared another motivation: They felt like a stranger to their old selves. And they wanted to reconnect.

Attempting to pull a thread between past and present is a common human impulse, what the Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams calls a search for “narrative identity”—this life story we draft as we go, trying to make sense of who we are and why. Marya Schechtman, a philosopher at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told me that humans are constantly negotiating a contradiction: On the one hand, “it’s just sort of taken as a given that you’re a single individual from roughly cradle to grave.” On the other hand, this isn’t really how we experience life. Certain parts of our history resonate more than others, and some former selves don’t feel like us at all. (“I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; one of them, a seventeen-year-old,” Joan Didion wrote. “It would be of some interest to me to know again what it feels like to sit on a river levee drinking vodka-and-orange-juice and listening to Les Paul and Mary Ford.”)

Many of us actively try to “make our pasts and our futures real to us,” Shechtman said. So although we eagerly make plans and envision ourselves in new places, with new people, we also flip through photo albums and reread our old journals. (Didion on keeping a notebook: “Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.”) But sometimes, those methods aren’t enough to really take us back. Burger kept hearing a similar story: Subjects would find photos of themselves as kids, but “they’re feeling like they can’t relate to this person in the picture,” he told me. “And it’s important to kind of get that sense of wholeness, to keep that part of yourself alive.”

Going home can be a much more effective way to time travel. Our past isn’t just preserved in knickknacks and memorabilia; it lingers in the spaces we once occupied. When we talk about our experiences, we often focus, understandably, on the people who’ve shaped us, and we “treat the physical environment like a backdrop,” Lynne Manzo, a landscape-architecture professor at the University of Washington, told me. But setting can be its own character; it colors our day-to-day, and we endow it with agency and meaning. If social interactions and relationships are the bricks constructing our identities, our surroundings are the scaffolding.

Setting is also central to how we remember. Recalling events (as opposed to information) involves “episodic memory,” which is deeply tied to location. Many researchers, in fact, believe that episodic memory evolved to help us physically orient ourselves in the world. (One very sad study—partial title: “Implications for Strandings”—found that some sea lions with damage to the hippocampus, the hub of episodic memory, get lost and wander ashore.) When you’re in a given space, your brain tends to “pull up the relevant memories” that happened there—even ones that have long been dormant, Charan Ranganath, a neuroscientist and the author of Why We Remember: Unlocking Memory’s Power to Hold On to What Matters, told me. People remembering a specific moment can even demonstrate what Ranganath called a “reboot” of the brain-activity patterns they showed during the original event.

But without the physical space to visit, it can be hard to mentally transport yourself back. When the 19th-century French writer Stendhal wrote his memoir The Life of Henry Brulard, detailing a difficult and lonely childhood, he drew the places of his youth again and again, in an obsessive attempt to spur his memory. “Winding staircase—Large, cheerless courtyard—Magnificent inlaid chest-of-drawers surmounted by a clock,” he scrawled under a sketch, as if the incantation might apparate him to his grandfather’s imposing Grenoble townhouse. Yet his recollection remained, as he put it, like a fresco, solid for stretches and elsewhere crumbling apart.

I can relate to the yearning for preservation: If my mom leaves my childhood home, I’ll lose the particular sweet smell—I can’t even describe it—that wafts through the living room on hot days. And the pinch of acorns under my bare feet in the yard. And the specific lilt of the birdsong in the early mornings, so different from what I hear now, just over 15 miles away. I’m scared that without those sensations, the filing cabinet deep in my mind, holding all these everyday snippets of memory, will get pushed just out of my reach.

Visiting home doesn’t always clarify or heal; it won’t necessarily make the scattered fragments of your story click into place. Sometimes, it just leaves you confused. For most people, what comes up is thorny—not only because good and bad events alike occurred at home, but because as much as you might long for your old and current selves to collide, it’s strange when they do.

Going back can highlight how faulty your recollections were in the first place—and how subjective your perceptions still are. Anne Wilson, a Wilfrid Laurier University psychologist who studies identity, gave me an example: You might remember your old bedroom as large, the hallway from it running on and on, not just because the memory is from a child’s perspective but also because you associate it with enchantment—or with powerlessness. If you return to the house and find a short hallway, a tiny bedroom, it can feel disturbing. That’s not to mention material changes that might have been made to the house, which Burger said his participants reliably hated. To encounter such a familiar space transformed, and without your consent—as if someone has snuck into your memories and moved things around—is an affront. Your version doesn’t exist anymore.

Even if family still lives in your old home, returning can be unnerving. Several people have told me, in casual conversation, that they’ve felt themselves regressing on visits back—they let their mom do their laundry or address their parents like a bratty 15-year-old. That tendency has to do with relationships as much as with physical space; our habits of interaction can be stubborn. But the setting itself can cue you to act a certain way. Just think about it evolutionarily, Schechtman told me: “If you’re a bunny, and you’re in the location where the hawk was last time, you should start feeling scared”—and get out of there. When a place triggers a rush of episodic memories, you might feel the frustration, the helplessness, the loneliness you did when you were young, and lapse into old behaviors.

All of this can feel odd, maybe even a little heartbreaking. Confronting change requires confronting loss. And confronting loss, of course, means acknowledging our mortality: If our old selves have slipped beyond our grasp, our current self will too. “The moment you stop to reflect, even on the present, that moment is gone,” Ranganath told me. “Everything is in the world of memory.”

But if you can let the melancholy of that truth wash over you, you might find that it’s beautiful too. So often, I feel stranded in the present or the recent past—stricken by the dumb thing I said yesterday but unable to conjure what it felt like to be 6, or 12, or 20. It’s hard to really feel that right now is one point in a larger life trajectory, even if I know it on some level. Going home is one of the rare times I can glimpse the larger perspective.

One of these days—after I’ve emptied the living-room drawer of the paper scraps and almost-spent gift cards—returning will be harder for me. But I can imagine my future self joining the ranks of Burger’s pilgrims, arriving on my old street looking for meaning, some story to tell about the past. That might sound sad, but such a visit isn’t just about holding on. It’s also about letting go—that thing I’ve been struggling to do.

Manzo, the landscape-architecture professor, suggested that I enact a ritual to bid farewell to my mom’s house: walk through the rooms, take pictures, pocket a stone. I could sketch like Stendahl, try to capture all the angles. I will lose some memories, but maybe I’ll come away with some sense of the wholeness that Burger said so many people seek. I keep thinking about the woman who ran out of her old home—she wanted wholeness too. Eventually, her brother bought the place and bulldozed it to the ground. She had just one more request: Where the house once stood, she asked him to plant some flowers.

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