I sat with the car idling in front of a stranger's house for the longest time, trying to make sense of what I was seeing.
There was a little patch of front yard and a narrow strip of pavement, narrower than I remembered, between me and house. The building seemed to have fallen into disrepair. The truck in the driveway had a workman's quality about it, a bent-billed ball cap on the dashboard, a box on the back to store tools. “Why can't you keep up this house?” I wondered.
I let my foot off the brake and coasted downhill a little to look at the garage. It still had a door and a big picture window where the rolling garage door used to be back when Reagan was in the White House.
This was Hampden, just off Route 1. I was on my way back home after a weekend in Houlton and decided to drive by the house where I grew up.
Try as I might, stare as long as I like, I couldn't see it. This was the place, but it wasn't here anymore.
For one thing, the big weeping willow was gone from the front yard. The whole time I was growing up, it had a big fat trunk that split into four a few feet off the ground. As a kid, I used to climb into the hollow between them. Just writing the words is like putting my hands in the dry leaves that lined this space.
Now there wasn't so much as a stump. The backyard was completely overgrown, a snarl of dark green branches reaching around the sides of the house like the fingers of a slowly closing fist.
My foot came off the brake again. A little farther down the hill. Seems like this hill was so much bigger. I can see the pavement running beneath my sneakers, hear the zip and hum of my BMX-style bike's tires, as I rode down past the Bartlett's house, past old Jenny's to the baseball field.
Now, in a family car there's almost no sense of movement, no enjoyment in travel. Now I was beside the side yard, it too overgrown.
The yard where I had all my adventures, where I played guns with Shawn from across the street, had changed completely.
I rolled down the hill, past the lawns I used to mow. It took me a long time to realize there was nothing much to see.
On the drive home, I started concocting a bizarre plan. I would win Powerball and then with the money, I would buy back the house and the properties near it. I would hire landscapers to come in and put it back the way it was. The raspberry bushes and the blackberry patch where I once cursed my father's chores would be lush with fruit again. The trees would be trimmed and cut back, revealing the old groves where Shawn and I had enchanted forest adventures in an age when Dungeons and Dragons meant something to the pop culture.
The apple tree I used to climb (I can see it all as clear as I can see the computer on my desk) would be unearthed, still just like it was, its branches heavy with wormy fruit.
And the house, oh the house would be the crowning achievement. The rooms restored, just the way they were. The old red carpet in the living room and the green one in the dining room, the desert and forests for my action figures.
It was about this point in my reverie, as I was driving through Frankfort, that the silliness of my ruminations occurred to me.
I would restore it all for what purpose? To resume a childhood long over? And how far would I go even if I had the money? Would there be an Atari in the upstairs room? Would Dad let me bring his books from his new house to put on the library shelves?
Were my memories and nostalgia so significant they should be preserved as some sort of historic museum? Here lies the scene of a few happy memories. Be sure to stop by the gift shop.
When you find yourself exploring a ruin, you have to ask, “What am I looking for here?”
I had to laugh at myself a little bit. How my wife would have enjoyed this daydream. Here I was, a man with a very real house in Rockland where half the doorknobs come off in your hand, a man who mows the lawn at least once per summer whether it needs it or not, suddenly, in his mind, a landscape architect and restoration expert!
The problem was simple enough. I hadn't let the place change in my mind. For more than 20 years, I assumed those same raspberries were growing right where I left them, that the house was still painted white and that Dad was coming back even though he didn't own the place anymore to hang the plastic on the windows every fall.
To see all at once that this landscape that is so real in my mind I can see and touch and taste and smell it, to see that it didn't even exist at all anymore was jarring. It was like someone was erasing my past.
Scarier still, maybe this “reality” never existed at all. Were all those features really there at the same time, or had my mind built a collage of different memories?
Plus, the problems of youth — school bullies, late homework, growing pains — seem small potatoes to grownups, but they were plenty real enough to me at the time. There was no perfect time.
Still, the home you grew up in has a lasting hold on you. Christine's mother told me she felt the exact same way about her parents' former house here in Rockland. At night, when I dream, more often than not, I'm back in Hampden.
But driving the rest of the way home from Frankfort, I could see I was now wide awake. I shook off the drowsy cobwebs of nostalgia, looked out at the real fall colors and told myself,
“Just let it go.”
Daniel Dunkle is news editor for Courier Publications. He lives in Rockland with his wife and two children. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on twitter at @DanDunkle.