“You can’t go home again.” ~Thomas Wolfe
My mom’s birthday was this past week, so I decided to head out to the East Coast to spend it with her. We had a great time, visiting Ellis and Liberty Islands in New York City, going to the movies (we saw The Big Sick, which was really good), taking a tour of the Harriet Beecher Stowe house, and going to a country fair. As luck would have it, my dad’s side of the family was hosting a family reunion at the same time, so I was able to visit with a lot of my family members on that side of the family too, plus celebrate my niece’s and nephew’s first days of kindergarten and first grade, respectfully, with ice cream from “Auntie Jen.”
Throughout my time here, Thomas Wolfe’s quote about not being able to go home again kept going around in my mind. It was probably because of all the ways that “family” and its associated struggles were showing up for me.
- Ellis Island is a great example. I had been there years ago, but my mom hadn’t ever visited there. We took the Hard Hat Tour. I highly recommend it – you get a behind-the-scenes look at what life was like for people who were sick and had to be admitted to the hospitals on the island before they were allowed into the United States to help prevent the spread of contagious diseases like measles, cholera, and tuberculosis. People entering Ellis Island had left behind family in their home country, might have been meeting family members that they hadn’t seen in quite some time, and, in some cases, when someone was sick, were leaving behind a family member on Ellis Island to hopefully heal they were allowed in.
- As a result of visiting the Harriet Beecher Stowe house, I’m reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I’m sorry to admit that I hadn’t read it before, but even just halfway through, I can see why it sold 300,000 copies when it was published in 1852. The story is a riveting and painful one that follows several slaves that are ripped from their families and sold to other slave owners. Abraham Lincoln stated that the book contributed to the state of the Civil War and I can see how. Harriet Beecher Stowe, while not a slaveowner, helped readers empathize with the humanity and plight of slaves in the United States. One heartbreaking passage in the book describes when a slave mother puts her 10-month old baby boy down for a nap and then briefly goes to see to something. In that short span of time, her owner takes the baby and sells him to someone else. The mother is understandably grief-stricken and ends up committing suicide.
- And the movie, The Big Sick, is all about family. In the movie, a Pakistani stand up comedian falls in love with an American woman. Thinking that his Muslim family would never accept an American woman, he ends up deceiving his girlfriend which results in them breaking up. When she gets sick and is in a coma, he realizes the depth of his feelings for her – which requires him to make a decision about himself, his family and his future.
Can you really go home and back to your family?
While you can physically visit home and family, I agree with Thomas Wolfe. You can never go back to the home that you remember. Home and family are living organisms, continually evolving. People marry, divorce, die. Children are born. Some family members move away. Others renounce their family or are cut off. In some cases, long-standing feuds divide family into one camp or another. Children grow up, into their own, and may have a different perspective on life from what their family does.
Every time you interact with your family, you – and they – are a different person from the time before. You’ve had experiences that have shaped you, even if that experience is as simple as going to Dunkin Donuts and getting the wrong order of coffee. The last time I saw my family was in February, while on my book tour, and before I spent time in Guatemala, Japan, Cambodia and Thailand. I know that I am a different person than I was in February and I brought that perspective with me as I spent time with my family these last couple weeks.
I brought one other thing with me: love. Love welcomes new family members, and remembers the ones that are not there or are no longer alive. Love helps heal hurts and family feuds, and embraces different perspectives so that we can find at least one point of common ground to begin the conversation. Love accepts and honors each family member exactly where they are today on their life journey and supports them as they move forward. And even in extremely difficult times, such as I saw at Ellis Island, read about in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and saw in The Big Sick, love can transcend time, space, and death to connect us together as family .