In his Life of Johnson, Boswell reproduces a letter Johnson wrote to him on Sept. 1, 1777, during a visit to his hometown of Lichfield. Characteristically, Johnson is philosophical about his return:
“Life admits not of delays; when pleasure can be had, it is fit to catch it: Every hour takes away part of the things that please us, and perhaps part of our disposition to be pleased. When I came to Lichfield, I found my old friend Harry Jackson dead. It was a loss, and a loss not to be repaired, as he was one of the companions of my childhood. I hope we may long continue to gain friends; but the friends which merit or usefulness can procure us, are not able to supply the place of old acquaintance, with whom the days of youth may be retraced, and those images revived which gave the earliest delight. If you and I live to be much older, we shall take great delight in talking over the Hebridean Journey.”
More than a century later, in 1882, Mark Twain spent two months revisiting the Mississippi River and his birthplace on its banks, Hannibal, Mo., in preparation for writing Life on the Mississippi. In Chapter LIII, “My Boyhood’s Home,” Twain describes an experience similar to Johnson’s:
“It was Sunday morning, and everybody was abed yet. So I passed through the vacant streets, still seeing the town as it was, and no as it is, and recognizing and metaphorically shaking hands with a hundred familiar objects which no longer exist; and finally climbed Holiday’s Hill to get a comprehensive view. The whole town lay spread out below me then, and I could mark and fix every locality, every detail. Naturally, I was a good deal moved. I said, `Many of the people I once knew in this tranquil refuge of my childhood are now in heaven; some, I trust, are in the other place.’
“The things about me and before me made me feel like a boy again – convinced me that I was a boy again, and that I had simply been dreaming an unusually long dream but my reflections spoiled all that; for they forced me to say, `I see fifty old houses down yonder, into each of which I could enter and find either a man or a woman who was a baby or unborn when I noticed those houses last, or a grandmother who was a plump young bride at that time.’”
Each time I return to the house where I grew up, now occupied by my brother and his family, a piece of me is surprised and angered that 1962 has passed. Who are these strangers inhabiting the houses of my childhood neighbors? What happened to the towering silver maple that stood by the end of our driveway, and the fence of 4-by-4s my father built along two sides of our lot? And the plum tree outside the backdoor that attracted so many wasps in the late summer when its fruit fell to the ground? And the portulaca along the driveway, that it was my job to harvest for seeds each fall? And where are Richard “Bimbo” Opalka, Johnny and Karen Pirko, and the Krotine brothers? Gone, like the “hundred familiar objects which no longer exist” that Twain describes, yet more real in memory than a photograph.