A couple of years before he passed, my World War II veteran brother went to the old veterans’ home and took his ailing friend Bill out for a day’s drive. He thought it would be nice for both of them to reconnect with the past, rekindle some memories and say goodbye to the old neighborhood and what friends were left. But it wasn’t easy. Familiar tree lined streets had been replaced with big new boulevards and new street signs. It seemed, my brother said, that everyone there was 21. Not one person or building was old. There were more cars and fewer trees than both had remembered.

The old church where both were baptized and where they had served Mass, was still there, but locked, as though God had moved away and left no return address.

A passing lady told them it wasn’t used for daily Mass anymore, only for the occasional wedding or funeral.

The old school next door was boarded up, and the big high walled convent down in the next block that once housed the teaching sisters wasn’t a convent anymore. The sisters had died off. Now, the ancient convent was a day care center with a plaque on the stone wall that marked it as an “historic landmark.”

Two blocks away, the old firehouse was still there, but it, too, had been closed and turned into an “historic landmark.” Both old friends sat on one of the ancient benches left behind, feeling, they said, “like they too had become historic landmarks.”

Each time they asked a passersby a question, a direction, they got the same answer. “Oh, that. It’s not there anymore.”

Some years later, I experienced the same thing. Home from Hollywood for a funeral, I visited the old homestead, a red brick house on a patch of scraggly lawn. I remembered how as a small child on hot summer days during the war, I would make a 15 block walk from this house to my Aunt Winnie’s, where I would always be given an ice cold Pepsi Cola and a ham sandwich on rye.

I decided at that moment to recreate the journey. I left my car and set out following the same streets, walking at first, then jogging the route where once I had made my way past huge empty lots that had been turned into Victory Gardens, past other relative’s houses, big stately apartment houses, empty lots that ran down to river. There was a huge field where a pack of yelping beagles would run along beside me.

So I started jogging, full of memories, and before I got three blocks away, everything had changed, all the old stately homes were gone. Where Victory Gardens once spread out in the sun, belching up vegetables, there were streets full of look alike homes, corner markets, a factory. And on that field where the joyful beagles had chased after me, a mini mall with a Kroger’s grocery store, a seven-theater cinema complex, even a Burger King and McDonald’s sat on a concrete lawn.

The street signs were the same, so I kept going, knowing that in a few minutes I would turn into shady Itaska Street and hopefully, Aunt Winnie’s old brick house.

Finally I turned the corner and ran up a small grassy knoll, smack into a mile long cyclone fence. Winnie’s home, in fact, Winnie’s entire neighborhood and hundreds of others, were gone.

The small grocery, the ice cream parlor, everything had vanished. I stood, out of breath, my fingers stuck through the holes of the fence, staring down across a smoggy roaring moonscape that bottomed onto a massive interstate six lane highway running from sunup to sundown, wiping out 48 years of my life. It erased the tastes of Pepsi Cola and ham sandwiches, the smell of Christmas trees, street gutters full of piles of burning autumn leaves, lawns full of snow, the sounds of old radio shows pouring out of screened windows, the clunky buzz of old lawnmowers. All gone.

My advice: If you’re going to come back, don’t go away, because Thomas Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again.

Like Winnie’s front porch and the river you always thought was blue, it’s not there anymore.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.

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