Going home again
There have been moments in life when I have thought, I will never feel like this in the same way, not ever again. I will never be afraid in the same way or be sad in the same way or be happy in the same way or need something or someone in the same way or love in the same way, not ever again. I can’t say I’ve been correct about any of them, of course, but I had one of those moments in Wapakoneta, Ohio, this past spring when I returned to my childhood home at 8 Hamilton Road after being away 40 years.
When we all got out of the truck, my hands trembled and my eyes filled with tears. I looked at my friends Karri and Dan with a physiological betrayal on my face that rattled me. I suddenly felt engulfed by emotions of the moment, of the previous weeks and months, of my youth, and of my life. Walking toward and then across the Hamilton Road Bridge over the Auglaize River to my childhood home, I was in a vulnerable state. My knees weakened beneath me, I felt unsteady, and my body shook. I let the tears, sobs, and quivers come as they may. I didn’t think about how exposed I was. My friends did not seem to mind; nor did they intrude.
A movie reel played in my mind of my life – my given life in Wapakoneta, Ohio, in all its beauty and its messiness, and my life since Wapak with all its complications. Not necessarily the life I had wanted to build for myself. I felt overwhelmed, full of complicated thoughts and emotions that refute any simple narrative. I was more nervous than I expected. To manage my nerves, I immediately focused on the physical environment – the Auglaize River. I didn’t rush that walk across the bridge. My friends took care of my dog Dixie and gave me the time and space I needed to be with the experience of being back in that place I had called home for 21 years and had not seen for 40 years.
Standing on the Hamilton Road Bridge, I looked upstream at the muddy brown water and watched it flow over the dam below – a dam wide enough to dare my 10-year-old self to jump across it more than 50 years ago and a current fast enough that could have carried her crashing over with logs and woody debris from the previous week’s flood.
I looked to the north shore where the old park house used to stand. It was a small white house in which my parents and two older siblings had lived before my twin sister and I were born. I wondered to myself what had happened to it. After Carole and I were born, our family moved from the park house into the house that I would call home for 21 years – a four-bedroom, split-level house my father helped design and build at 8 Hamilton Road. That house, which was second from the south bank of the river, was not yet in view.
I saw trees and a manicured green lawn where swing sets used to carry Carole and me and our mother perilously close to doing 360-degree twirls over the posts and tall grasses. I noticed a concrete path running parallel to the north shore and followed it as far as my eyes could see, wondering if it extended to Blackhoof Street and downtown Wapak.
The muddy, murky water was deep with vivid memories of me as a playful, confident, and curious little girl, a confused and shy adolescent, and a melancholy and awkward teenager ready to leave home but so uncertain about who she was, what she wanted to do, and where she wanted to go. On this visit, I talked to that girl, honored her, and recognized her deep and enduring connection to this place.
From the bridge, I looked northeast toward Harmon Park, where I used to crouch low in the tall, unmown grasses by the river, playing pretend games of Explorer and Cowboys and Indians and keeping a keen eye out for birds, squirrels, bugs, worms, and passersby. I recalled how I would walk across the bridge, scramble down the rocky slope at the north end of the bridge, and amble down the gravel road to the park to climb trees, collect rocks in my pockets, and get my red sneakers muddy.
In the park, I saw a large gazebo, wooded picnic area, skate park, and a water park that transformed the city swimming pool of my youth into something grander with a giant water slide, competition diving boards, and a larger pool. In the 1960s, Wapak Pool was the place to go to keep cool in the summer, as hundreds would crowd the pool and wait in line for penny snacks.
I looked to the south shore; it was as I remembered it, lined with thick shrubs and Weeping Willow trees, blocking the view of the first two houses by the river. My eyes followed the south riverbank and shoreline where I used to get away as a young girl. Dashing out our walkout basement door, I would run across the backyard, through the greenspaces of properties on the adjacent West Auglaize Street, and along the riverbank to my secret hiding places in the trees, shrubs, and grass. I took a deep breath, the smells and tastes of wild onions, wild carrots, clover, and Kentucky bluegrass close in my memory.
Holding onto the bridge railing, I remembered my teenage self, who walked across this bridge every weekday to and from Wapakoneta Senior High School, feeling awkward, odd, and unsure of herself. I remembered my 21-year-old self, who essentially ran away from home to southern California, to get lost in anonymity and eventually find solace and a sense of herself on a horse ranch. I acknowledged the deep-seated regret at how my decision to withdraw from college temporarily and leave Ohio permanently had affected my parents, siblings, friends, and myself.
Standing on the bridge, looking upstream at the Auglaize River and then below at the water pouring over the dam, I felt the floodgates open inside me. This town and the Auglaize River were a part of my family and a part of my being. Roots. My decisions to move away from Ohio to California, and then 13 years later from California to Oregon, meant parting from so much and came with tradeoffs. My leaving each place was okay; that wasn’t the issue. The issue was that I wished I had handled myself and situations better and done things differently.
Within moments came another surge of emotion, not rooted in my childhood and young adulthood, but rather, with more complicated, adult influences. I acknowledged the regret that my beloved Miya and I never found a way to make a life together. We never overcame the separations that prevented us from creating a home together. I realized I had lived my life mostly as a single woman because I could not love another the way I loved her. I tried. Believing I could not share that truth with most people in my life had ironically compounded separation and sorrow in my life.
I recalled a personal, revealing conversation I had with my mother in my house in Portland, Oregon, after my father died, in which she shared more details about her own life, stories I had never heard before. I confided in her my relationship with Miya. She looked at me with a soft expression and said, “Oh, Cheri. We sometimes do foolish things for love.” And with the same loving kindness she had given me all her life, she did not tell me what to do.
My thoughts were rushing through a tunnel, like stormwater through a culvert. What was moving in me was moving me toward some new perspective, although I could not say at the time what it was.
This was a lot to feel and think about all at once. Like the floodwaters I had seen all across the country, the feelings and thoughts had nowhere else to go but to spill out and over the walls I had built, walls that could no longer hold them back. It was time to let all that regret go. Only then could the floodwaters recede, the landscape of my life recover, and a new season of crops be planted.
“It’s an okay metaphor, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” I thought. “You can take the girl out of the Midwest, but…. What is the Midwest anyhow and what does it really mean to be Midwestern?…. There’s no place like home…. You really can’t go home again…. Stop!”
I really did not want my trip home to be characterized by clichés, simple metaphors, evasions, secrets and lies, and a compilation of then-and-now observations. I had to stop the chatter in my brain. With that, it was enough that I continue walking across the bridge.
Once across, I scrambled down the bank at the south end of the bridge, as I had done hundreds of times as a child, and ventured out onto the concrete slab of the dam. Karri captured the milestone event in her photos. Dixie led Dan down the bank.
Fascinated at how familiar everything was, I further explored the rocky riverbed under the bridge, by its south supports, and wondered, “If I dig deep enough, will I find any remnants of the old notes I used to write and bury under the bridge?” When I was a young girl, I had secrets and did not confide them to anyone. I gave them to the river.
Perhaps floodwaters long ago eroded the earth and washed my notes down the river. So, on this 24th day of May 2019, 40 years after leaving home, I squatted on the rocks at the river’s edge, pulled three small stones from my pocket, and gave them back to the river. In a personal and private moment under the bridge, I expressed a few words of gratitude for my dear old friend, The River.
I re-joined my friends and Dixie on the sidewalk and looked south toward the property that was the Kuck family home from 1957 until 1980. Although I couldn’t see the house just yet, I felt anxious anticipation at seeing it for the first time since the summer of 1979, when I had flown home from southern California to help move Carole to California. That summer, she and I drove a 23-foot Ryder truck across the country (through the Southwest on Route 66) with all of her belongings, the rest of my belongings, our bedroom furniture, and even some of our parents’ belongings, as they were preparing to make the move to the West as well.
I paused briefly at the first house on the south side of the river to take a few photos of the place that was home to virtual Road Dog Jill during our teenage years. When I was a little girl, the property belonged to Dot and Von Swanger and their good and gentle giant of a dog, Frisky.
Karri, Dan, Dixie, and I then walked to the house at 8 Hamilton Road and stopped. I stared at the house I grew up in. It was the place of memories, both good and sad – birthdays and holidays, parents and siblings, pets and friends, boats and fishing poles, tennis racquets and softballs, yard games and make-believe play, home-cooked dinners and treats, books and newspapers, snowstorms and snow drifts, riding lawnmowers and gun cabinets, sewing machines and crossword puzzles, measles and chicken pox, record players and band instruments, greetings and goodbyes, and stories. It was the place of family disputes, anger, jealousy, fears, tears, things said or not said, decisions made, and things done. It was also the place of laughter, playfulness, tenderness, warmth, guidance, comfort, joy, generosity, and love. The sounds I recalled were mostly good sounds. The faces I recalled were beautiful and dear. It was, as everything above indicates, a family home.
Standing on the sidewalk and staring at the property, I was struck by how it was mostly as I remembered it, except for a few structural and landscape improvements and signs of age. I was glad to see it looking so good and cared for. Despite knowing that strangers lived inside the house I once called home, I felt something about it still belonged to me. Perhaps everyone feels that way about their childhood home.
I took a deep breath, boldly walked up to the front door, and knocked. I waited. No answer. So, I walked to the top of the small hillside on which the house was built and looked out at the backyard. The backyard and walkout basement were always my favorite features of the property and house. Seeing a car drive into the driveway, I walked over to greet the woman who stepped out. Trying to reassure her and calm any fear or alarm she might have about my presence, I introduced myself, “Hi. My name is Cheryl Kuck. I grew up in this house.”
We talked. Penny offered to give me a tour of the inside of the house. I declined. That seemed intrusive and unnecessary. Besides, just a few days earlier, sleeping in a roadside motel, I had had a vivid dream of walking through the house. In the dream, I saw the living room where our family shared music, Sunday night television shows, local sports on the radio, and holiday traditions; the kitchen where my mother prepared delicious home-cooked meals and the countertop where I mastered the art of stealing cookies from the jar; the table where our family gathered to play cards and board games; the library den where my mother introduced me to the book Little Women and encouraged me to be myself; my writing pad of secrets, including the small piece of paper on which I wrote the word Lesbian and then folded it and concealed it in the drawer of my nightstand; my parents’ bedroom where I played dress-up in my father’s shirts and ties; my mother’s vanity where I lip-synced in front of the mirror, pretending to be Petula Clark, Andy Williams, and John Davidson; the basement where Carole and I played hide-and-seek; the stairs where I watched my father shine his shoes and the wooden workbench where my father made things; the table where my mother cut out her sewing patterns and the ping-pong table where I laid out the high school newspaper, The Lantern; the desk where I wrote and re-wrote essays and struggled through geometry story problems; the closet where I sat in the dark and listened to Peter, Paul and Mary and Cat Stevens records; the front window where I watched the sky turn slate black as the wind picked up a garbage can and launched it several yards into the air; the nightstand where I kept my writing pad of secrets; the built-in cupboards where we kept favorite games and picture puzzles; the window curtains my mother sewed and the bedroom furniture my father built; the Bruner family plaque on the wall that read, “Keep Looking Up;” the spot on the carpet where I dropped a large bowl of strawberry jello before it set; and the chairs and couches where we all sat and talked and laughed with each other.
So, no, I did not accept Penny’s offer to tour the inside of the house, preferring to preserve my memories of home, undisturbed by her family’s use and design of what is now their home. But I did ask her if I could walk into the backyard and go to where I could see the river; I choked up when I briefly explained the significance of my request. She obliged with warmth, sensitivity, and kindness.
Together, we walked down the cement steps my father built along the carport wall on the hill and into the backyard. We shared stories – she, of her children and the projects she and her husband wanted to do with the house and yard; I, of my memories of the house and neighborhood and my road trip home after 40 years.
I stepped in and out of the past, straddling sights, sounds, smells, and textures familiar and strange, old and new. I took it all in – the Maple trees and massive Blue Spruce tree; the brown grass of the floodwater-soaked backyard; the open storage area under the carport and the slant of the roof; the wood-framed windows and aluminum siding; the shrubs and neighbor’s hedge; the river and greenspace stretching all the way to downtown; and the memories of lightning bugs, ball games, swing sets, ice skates, snow sleds, pup tents, and childhood playmates.
Some of the trees I remembered from our Kuck family yard were still alive and healthy, at least as old as I am. Two front yard trees, however, were struck by lightning in severe thunderstorms several years ago and replaced with other trees.
I thought about so many things. The difficult emotions of the previous hour or so had dissipated; I felt grounded and peaceful.
Penny was gracious and generous to let me take photos of her home – the house, yard, and trees that were once home to me. It’s interesting that she apologized for how the place looked. I told her the place looked beautiful to me and it was obvious her family took pride in caring for it. And as a homeowner myself I knew how projects could pile up. We shared stories about the property and the river, she talked about the prior week’s floods, and I showed her old photos of when it was the Kuck family home. Penny and I parted merrily, and I walked back across the bridge to re-join my friends and Dixie.
Walking back across the Hamilton Road Bridge, I crossed the street for a view of the Auglaize River looking downstream, toward the west. This was the put-in point of our canoeing adventures with our childhood friend Mary. It really is a beautiful river.
Two days later, I returned to Hamilton Road with Dixie. She and I walked the new riverside path through Harmon Park to Blackhoof Street, crossed that bridge, strolled through downtown and Heritage Park, and walked my old Girl Scout cookie sales route on West Auglaize Street back to Hamilton Road.
It was fun to see the Wapak tennis courts again – a place where Carole and I and our older siblings, Bev and Fritz, spent many a day and evening playing tennis, not only with each other but also with friends and other high school athletes who competed in Western Buckeye League tournaments. Carole and I and our classmate Tina were the first girls on the “boys” tennis team in Wapak. The coach was not thrilled about our trying out for the team, and we passed every physical challenge he gave us to dissuade us. Long-distance running, full push-ups, and other grueling calisthenics exercises felt like punishment. Carole and I stayed with it and were a successful second doubles team in the League.
Dixie and I continued walking the riverside trail to Blackhoof Street Bridge, crossing over to downtown Wapak, where we rested in Heritage Park and enjoyed the river. Dixie did a little rock climbing and bird watching.
I recalled the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of ice skaters who took to the river when it froze in winter and built bonfires to warm themselves. I remembered all the fun that our family had skating on a section of the river closer to Hamilton Road Bridge, between our house and where kids played hockey. Our frozen section of the river, where few others skated because the hockey games shielded us from downtown skaters, was smooth and glass-like. It was especially fun when the ice was covered with a thin layer of fresh snow, but it could be bumpy when the wind blew hard as the river froze.
I looked toward the parking lot behind town and remembered my mother parking the car to take us shopping at Grants department store. Just like that, I was up and ready for a walk downtown.
Even though I had walked downtown West Auglaize Street two days prior with Karri and Dan, on this day, May 26, I wanted to complete the loop. Downtown Wapakoneta on a Sunday was quiet. Businesses were closed, except for an antique shop I browsed. I took time this day to appreciate the beautiful architecture of the many historic buildings.
The Wapakoneta Post Office featured a 1937 mural called Wapakoneta and American History. When Karri and I were in the post office two days prior, each of us was struck by its beauty and also struck by the fact that neither of us had remembered it from our visits as youngsters.
The Wapa Theater, with its classic marquee preserved, was a fun stop with Karri and Dan. The theater began as a vaudeville house in 1904 and has been a movie theater since the 1930s. This is where our family and friends went to the movies.
After walking through downtown Wapak, I continued to the residential neighborhood on West Auglaize Street and recognized many old houses that were on my Girl Scout cookie sales route. Spying a bright red Cardinal, the State Bird of Ohio, on the ground under a shrub, I stopped and watched it hunt for worms.
Looping back onto Hamilton Road, I walked toward the Auglaize River and Hamilton Road Bridge and stopped for another look at our Kuck family house. This day, I met Acacia, the owner of the house next door, the house I knew as the Truesdale house. Turns out Acacia is the Truesdales’ granddaughter and the daughter of their son, Eric, with whom Carole and I played as youngsters. Circles.
Looking at the photo above, with Dixie’s yellow poop bag hanging from her leash, I can’t help but think: we can leave home, but we can’t leave our shit behind; we carry it with us…until we own it, clean it up as best we can, and let it go.
Seeing my childhood home for the first time in 40 years and having such an emotional response to being there, I was not ready to articulate my thoughts and takeaways at the time. I would need several months before I could reflect upon my experience and decipher its meaning. Besides, I was only at the halfway point of my road trip adventure and still had far to go and more to discover.
I took one more look at all that water under the bridge and crossed over. I could not say anything certain like, “What’s done is done. Time marches forward. I am a part of the permanent present.” Ugh. For me, time has always passed in more than one direction. Some changes happen over a long time, and the journey is not linear. But I left Wapak knowing that important shifts were occurring inside me, aware that some things from my past no longer seemed so important.
I also knew that the meaning of home for me would never be the same again. While home had been many places for me over the years, it was defined, no matter the address, by the love, kindness, generosity, courage, strength, grace, forgiveness, and wisdom of family, chosen family, and friends. Standing on the Hamilton Road Bridge over the Auglaize River, I knew that there was no room for regret at home – sorrow, yes; regret, no. I had to let it go.
This road trip reflection includes and continues with the following:
- Road Trip 2019 Part I: Follow the rivers and red-rutted roads
- Road Trip 2019 Part II: Ohio-bound weather and wayfinding
- Road Trip 2019 Part III: Oregon-bound weather and wayfinding
- Road Trip 2019 Part IV: Going home again
- Road Trip 2019 Part V: Purpose and discovery
- Road Trip 2019 Part VI: A log on rivers and lakes
Composed in December 2019 and early January 2020 – seven months after my dog Dixie and I took a road trip in mid-to-late-May across the United States from Oregon to Ohio and back. I visited the childhood home where I grew up and had not seen in 40 years. Photos by me, except where noted, taken on May 24 and May 26.