The old saying “you can’t go home again” is not quite accurate. You can go to a place that used to be home, though it will never mean that again, to dust off that old box of memories, even as we wince a bit at the associated pain. I’ve done my share of dusting off those memories over my adult life, pain and all. And, I admit that every time circumstances have brought me to Western Massachusetts, there is a sense of dread that old slideshow will start clicking away in my head…..the vivid images, the sadness, the loss, the stuff I left behind such a long, long time ago. So, it was a surprise to myself that, on this very dismal Sunday afternoon after Christmas, I scooped up my camera and headed into West Springifield.
Coming over the Agawam bridge and heading into downtown, my first stop was Park Avenue Elementary School. The building is still there, no longer a school. The playground where we went out for recess and where the Duncan yo-yo guy came to demonstrate how to work the gadget is now a parking lot. Can you imagine an open playground where a stranger could approach children during recess? There was no one outside, no cars in the lot. Still looked amazingly the same and I could see myself standing in line at the GIRLS entrance, waiting to come in for class.
So often I’ve told the story about how far I walked to elementary school – how that would be impossible today, in the cloud of paranoia that grips our country. I got to wondering if my idea of how far I actually walked really was far, Since it was very cold and raining even harder, I decided to drive – turns out the distance was a little over 1/2 mile. Down a fairly major street, rounding the corner flanked by what once was the Strathmore Paper Company and a small cemetery, past the house that had been graced by enormous forsythia bushes (the owner let me cut them in the spring) and all the other houses where I went trick or treating, to our house at the end of Church Street. I walked that route for 5 years. All by myself. Every school day. From my front door to Miss Fucilla in the first grade, on to Mr. Quigley in the fifth grade. Nothing significant ever happened en route, except for the time I peed in my little panties and was so embarrassed I practically ran home.
When we reached 6th grade, my whole class was shipped off to the old high school building a little further up the street, across the town common. It was empty because a brand new high school had been opened. Since we were the first year of post-war baby boomers, the Junior High School couldn’t handle the size of our class. So we were all sent to this old historic building named after the first principal of the school – William A. Cowing. We went back to the same building for ninth grade too, because the brand new high school couldn’t handle our numbers either.
I drove up to the new high school later in the afternoon and sat in the car looking at the heavy wide doors in front of the building. Inside the entrance is the big, state of the art (in the day) auditorium and theatre with a stage apron that could be raised at the touch of a button. It was very classy and I spent many, many hours on that stage in talent shows and chorus performances led by the formidable Miss Ruth Phelps – to this day, my ideal choral conductor even though she was quirky and tough as nails. Wore the same outfit every day – a grey skirt and powder blue blouse. For performances, a purple jacket dress. I always wondered if she had multiples of those uniforms. She was brilliant and strange. I came to think those two qualities were inseparable.
It was coming out of a choir rehearsal one November afternoon that Bruce Oney walked through those same big entry doors and told me that President Kennedy had been shot. He had seen it on TV at home and came back to school to tell whoever he found. I was the first recipient of his awful news. I couldn’t believe it – of course. My memories of that afternoon are fragmented. Walking to Spanish Club, all of us sitting in our chairs, numb. The teacher – wish I could remember his name – was from Spain. He said that he understood we were not used to ‘this kind of thing’ in the United States and we should all just go home. Imagine a time when we were not used to this kind of thing.
Outside, sitting in my rental car, in the pouring almost freezing rain, I noticed that the drive up to the school was now named after our principal Robert Shields. We’ve lived long enough for him to be memorialized, just like old Mr. Cowing. This year will be our 50th class reunion, which will be ‘honored’ by our ‘brand new’ high school being torn down, replaced by a bigger, better version.
The weather did not improve during my tour – all photos were taken from the car, with the window rolled down and rain dripping down inside the door. I visited The First Congregational Church where I went to Sunday School, sang in every choir, was part of the youth Pilgrim Fellowship, went to Saturday night bean suppers with my parents and my grandmother, had my first questions about my faith, got married, baptized my boy. I remember Dr. Frasier Keirstead when he first became our pastor – showing up at his first bean supper in a red flannel shirt and causing a real ruffle! Len Warner, our youth leader so loved by all the teens. My mother and grandmother baking pies in the big community kitchen for our church tent at the Eastern States Exposition. What a huge part of my life was lived at that church! I could see us all standing out front, in our maroon robes with the white satin stoles, holding our Pilgrim Hymnals and waiting to walk down the aisles singing away “When Morning Guilds the Skies”.
In the center of town, the Majestic Theater is also still there – only now it’s a live stage theater! I love that. When I was small, it was a movie house and I remember the lobby, ticket office, the matron who made sure we all minded our manners. I remember so well because my parents would drop me off on every Saturday morning with 50 cents. Two feature films, cartoons and a serial later, with popcorn and candy included, I emerged. Every Saturday. What a deal.
I drove through old neighborhoods – on the lookout for my friends’ houses. Would I recognize them? Sure. Turning down each street, my eyes went right to where Ann lived and I remembered her finished basement, where her father had built an elevated run for their cat Peaches all around the room. A few blocks over was Elisa’s house with all the lovely things from Germany. The Dolans, the Moriartys, the Wymans, the Johnsons. The cast of my childhood. My grandmother’s house is barely recognizable because the beautiful hills across the street are now filled with streets and homes. The woods behind the house also gone. My cousins and I would walk though those woods to find the brook. In the summer, we’d take off our shoes and wade. We might as well have been in the middle of Montana. It was a wild place. A natural place. Not any more.
On my way out of town, I drove past the Church Street house again and down Main Street to a favorite old destination Pudgie’s Variety where I would roller-skate in to buy a loaf of Wonder Bread for 21 cents. The owner would say ‘what do you think this is, the Rialto?’ I would smile because he said that to me every time. There was a soda fountain and a big penny candy display. It’s now an international food store.
I was one of those kids who left my hometown pretty early, attracted by the big city and anxious to move away from the tragedy of my broken family, into the open arms of a great big wonderful world filled with promise. We get older; so much happens. We get so busy with work, children, our own efforts to build something better than we had. Through the years, and in some cases, hours of therapy, we can box up all that baggage we’ve carried from childhood. I was pretty darned good at that. And I have built an exciting, adventuresome, wonderful life that was unimaginable for me as I walked that 1/2 mile plus between Church Street and Park Avenue Elementary.
But, on this cold, rainy Sunday afternoon after Christmas, cruising around West Springfield, I was finally able to see what had been covered up for such a long, long time – that this little town in Western Massachusetts had been a gift – a trove of riches – a foundation for the life I created. Learning ballet at Hall Studios, fearlessly riding my bike everywhere, skating over cracked sidewalks, taking the Street Railway Bus across the bridge to shop at Forbes and Wallace or visit my aunt Sophie who ran the candy counter at Steiger’s. Sledding in the winter, skating at the reservoir in the beautiful skirt my mother made me so I could pretend I was Sonja Henie, summer shows at Storrowton Music Circus, the magic of Rainbow Girls at the Masonic Temple. Friends. Music. Hot fudge sundaes at Friendly’s. The Monkey House at Forest Park. So much that was good. So much that is part of who I am today.
I am grateful for being able to see my growing up years though new eyes – a ViewFinder, with images shifting as I click through, one by one. Those pictures were always there for me to look at, but it has taken me decades to heal from the painful, unhealed wounds, the devastating losses that eclipsed them. I am grateful that rainy Sunday afternoon helped me pull out the good box of memories – the one that has been tied with a lovely pink bow and and stored all those years, waiting for me to open.