Home is So Sad
In Henry James' short story The Jolly Corner, the main character, Spencer Bryden, comes home after having spent 30 years abroad. His parents are dead and a builder has offered him good money for the family's New York townhouse. Bryden finds himself compulsively going through the old house night after night in the days before it is to be demolished. One evening he encounters a ghost, but not just any ghost. It's the ghost of who he would have been had he never left New York all those years ago. I've always been struck by the idea that there are ghostly selves of who we might have been had we married that person, taken that job offer, moved to some other city.
Perhaps, however, there are just as many ghosts if you remain. Take me, for example. I never intended to spend the bulk of my life in the city where I was born. It just turned out that way. Most of the time I am glad I am where I am, but sometimes I do run into the ghosts of who I used to be.
In fact, it's nearly impossible for me to drive across town without running into a dozen mnemonic tombstones: here is the house of a kid I knew in high school, there's the corner where I used to buy a soda on the way home from work, and there's the apartment building where I once dated a woman. I remember drinking champagne with her on the sofa and listening to Louis Armstrong records.
I'm not sure how to convey this sensation to those who don't feel it. It's a little like coming back to the home you grew up in and finding that your parents haven't changed anything. It's the same decor they had on the day you went off to college or got married: the 1970s lamp, the avocado-colored refrigerator; even that goofy pen and ink drawing you did in high school is still hanging in the hall by the steps. It's so odd to think that it's all still there and hasn't changed. After all, you have changed so much since then. Now imagine this same feeling but multiplied by 500 and spread out across an entire city. That's what I mean. The longer I live here, the more these ghosts crowd around reminding me who I used to be.
Sometimes I think it would be wonderful not to live in the city where I grew up. Then all those ghosts and memories could just erode into the sea and disappear. Of home, the late British poet Phillip Larking once wrote,
Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft
And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.
I have always liked certain lines like "Long fallen wide" and the way the the poem trails off with "That Vase." I imagine it's empty.