This is what happens when you come back. Time fails. Geography wins. We’re in the children’s book by Margaret Wise Brown in which the little bunny keeps trying to run away, but his mother is always there, arms outstretched, embedded in the landscape. This is what [coming back] is doing to us. We are her children, and we are being claimed.”What Falls From the Sky
“We’re going to Winchendon today,” I texted my husband on a Tuesday morning a couple of weeks ago.
“Safe travels sown memory lane,” he replied.
The “we” referred to my oldest brother and my mom. We were in Central Massachusetts visiting my younger brother for a short two days and two of the places that had been home for our family during furloughs were within a forty minute drive.
My mom was born and raised in Winchendon, Massachusetts before leaving the United States to spend a lifetime overseas. I was born in the same town and spent my first three months of life there before arriving in Pakistan as a three-month old. I returned to Winchendon at four, then at fourteen – each time living for a limited amount of time before returning home to Pakistan. I had also lived in the city of Fitchburg, about a half hour away from Winchendon, when I was 10 going on 11. Though I have lived in Massachusetts for many years now, I had never gone on a trip down memory lane.
Memory lane travel began on Klondike Avenue in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Klondike Avenue received us, a missionary family with a bunch of kids, made us feel like we were at home, like we belonged. As we drove down the street I eagerly waited to see the house where we lived during that unforgettable year. I remembered it as being an old New England home on a dandelion dotted hill that sloped down to the road. Like many things in my memory, the house was far smaller, the hill was not as large, but the house looked happy and well cared for with bright red and pink geraniums beckoning from the back steps. The area around the house was completely built up, farm land sold to a developer many years ago. Paradise had indeed been paved to make way for homes, families, and urban growth.
Klondike Avenue was thousands of miles away from our world in Pakistan. We traded boarding school for day school, a land rover for a Ford station wagon, Sunday night singspirations for Sunday night cereal. We were the missionary family with all the kids and as we entered, the neighborhood seemed to know we were coming.
Memories flooded over me of swimming in the Pierce’s pool and playing softball on late spring evenings on the Pierce Farm field; riding bikes to the book mobile that came every Thursday and Vacation Bible School at Highland Baptist Church; laughing and talking with Carin Waaramaa who lived at the end of the street and generously offered me her friendship and her family, no strings attached, no motives, just pure grace.
For kids coming from Pakistan, Klondike Avenue was near perfect.
At this point we were miles into memory lane and I wondered aloud if we could find East Street School, the old brick building where my youngest brother and I went to school that year. Just around a corner, we unexpectedly came on it. It’s sad facade begged us to stop and pay attention, clearly no one else had. Windows were boarded up and resilient plants sprouted their way through cracked concrete. A young woman with a brilliant smile that sparkled of good dental care had pulled up to the side of the road. She looked at us curiously, what would bring people to stop and take pictures of this sad building? Through an open window I explained to her that I had attended this very school many, many years before.
Highland Baptist Church, an old New England Church with white clapboard and a tall steeple, was our next stop. We chatted with the current pastor, my mom relaying some of her memories and we hearing some of the current happenings in the community.
On to Winchendon where we visited the cemetery where my grandmother and grandfather are buried, as well as two stillborn children and a first wife that my brother buried before he was 28 years old. Sometimes you need to be reminded of the suffering of your siblings. In that space, the midday sun shining brightly on us, I remembered.
We drove on to the veteran’s cemetery, the graves lined up like tidy soldiers, a startling contrast to the untidiness of death, to the untidiness of war. It took a couple of text messages and looking on a website to find my father’s grave. Not having thought ahead, we shamelessly “borrowed” some flowers from another grave for a photo op, and we will ever be grateful to the family of Kenneth Proos for their unknowing generosity. Immediately after the picture was taken we returned them to their rightful owner. I like to think that the laughter it brought us was gratitude in itself, but we will never know.
My mom’s childhood home at 485 Central Street in Winchendon was our next stop. To our amazement we connected with Mr. Walker, a man who has lived there for decades and remembered my grandparents. “You’re a Kolodinski?” he asked my mom. He and his wife bought the house not too many years after my grandmother moved. It was a poignant connection and gift to hear memories of the house and neighborhood. As we drove away, we weren’t thinking much about memories. Pizza and subs were on our collective minds. How can memory make one so hungry? Revived by sub sandwiches at a local pizza place, more family stories were told.
Our last stops were the schools we attended and 40 Hyde Park Street, the street and house where my cousins lived, a home base of sorts for us every four years until it wasn’t. My great grandfather, a Polish/Lithuanian immigrant, bought farm land when he moved to the area hoping his son would take it on after he died. Like so many immigrant families, what the parent wanted and what the adult child wanted were two different things. The farm land was slowly sold off, in its place stand an assisted living center and other homes. We had lived in the house next door for my freshman and sophomore years of highschool, a perfect location with cousins, an aunt and uncle, and grandmother next door.
As I looked up at the windows of the tiny room that had been my bedroom, I remembered tumultuous teen years in a place where I didn’t fit, a round (quite round as I gained a lot of weight that year) peg trying desperately to fit myself into all of the square holes around me only to realize that I was too round, too different, too “other.” And yet, I still remember sweet friendships with people who could reach across the barriers that divide, inviting me into relationship and connection.
It was mid afternoon when we began to drive back to Clinton. There was still a lot of daylight left, the summer sun not yet tired, but our return trip was quieter, perhaps each of us were lost in memory and story.
I have often tried to forget this area, to deny my connection to the geography or people. Whenever I thought about Winchendon, the only colors that would come to my mind were grey and sad, while the colors that came into my mind with Pakistan were brilliant reds, yellows, blues, and greens. But it is as impossible to forget this area as it would be to forget Pakistan. They worked in tandem to raise me. This is a place that has been part of my extended family for generations and has given me a heritage that I cannot deny.
Each of us has an invisible box of told and untold journeys and memories. Some of these have names and faces, roads and mailboxes. Others have emotions and conversations, wishes and regrets, dreams and hurts. There are the valleys of gravestones and unimaginable pain and there are mountains of unexplainable joy. Memories remind us who we are, where we’ve come from, what we’ve lived through. They connect us even when they are hard and sad, for a life without contrasts is no life at all.
It is now a couple of weeks later. Life moves forward and, as Dumbledore tells us, “It does not do to dwell on dreams (or memories) and forget to live.” Perhaps that’s why we need the caution to travel safely down memory lane. For whether the memories be good or hard, living color or deep grey, they can trap us into imagining life was far better or far worse than it actually was or is.
As for me, my travel down memory lane was safe and secure, full of stories and laughter, a day of being claimed by the memories and geography that make me who I am.