by Robert Gillis
Published in the Foxboro Reporter 9/2000 and the Boston City Paper 1/2007

Recently I was out driving with the family, and Mom suggested a tour of the old Dorchester neighborhoods. This wasn’t the first visit to the old home town; I’ve returned there since I sold Nana’s house, and I’ve passed by the three-deckers where we lived several times in the last few years. What made this particular journey to the past so interesting was my reaction was different this time around.

We stopped first in front of the old house on Sawyer Avenue. The neighborhood is so quiet; when I was a kid there were always dozens of kids playing. Nearby Saint Margaret’s Hospital, closed in 1993, is now part clinic, part vacant building. The streets where we played kickball, hoops, scully and tag look so quiet now.

We drive up Cushing Avenue, naming off friends and family who used to live in this or that house, along with memories of each person. I find that many of the houses are in bad need of repair; in some cases the paint isn’t even faded, it’s falling off. Other houses seem improved since the last visit. New houses are everywhere, and there seem to be a lot more cars.

A left on Rowell and we pass by the first house we lived in — the house Mom and Dad took after they were married, where I spent my first eleven years. But today, surprisingly, there’s no emotional connection. The history is important, to be sure, but it’s been so long, and the memories are so old, that none of it seems real anymore.

There’s the store where Dad worked — the Hancock market. It looks so different now, larger, improved. Not the little store I remember. We stop by 10 Trull Street–Nana’s house — it will always be Nana’s house. Then I remember — it isn’t Nana’s house anymore. It’s somebody else’s house now. That still hurts a little.

We pass the Strand Pharmacy, still there, and Cataloni’s bar, where the best pizza in the world was only $4.50. The Bak Chin Chinese laundry is now a hair styling place. The old Kresgees (Kmart) is a food market. The Fleet and Citizens bank and ATM seem out of place here — almost too futuristic for what I remember to be a quaint corner.

Everything looks different.

Everything is different.

Although the school is still there, Saint Kevin Church is now half church and half classroom. I noticed that the stain glass windrows have been replaced with modern, clear panes.

“We had everything there,” Mom reminisces. “I was married there, Dad was buried from there…” We name off graduations, first communications, first penances, weekly and Christmas masses.

We pass the nuns’ convent — now a community center — and the Saint Kevin Rectory. I remember my last visit there for a copy of my baptismal certificate — Father Kierce was wolfing down a vanilla instant pudding before rushing to see another parishioner — always on the go, always running, out helping someone. May he rest in peace.

We swing into the old school yard — I haven’t been here in well over twenty years — and it looks smaller than I remember. Maybe school yards always look smaller when you’re an adult. My sister points to the faded hopscotch markings. I notice the fence where we used to line up to file into class. I remember Miss Hanlon — such a great teacher — and Sister Catherine Mullen, the best teacher I ever had in my life.

The walls of the school still have eraser shadows — they must still have kids clean erasers by pounding them on the walls. And I look, and I think, what’s wrong with me? Shouldn’t I be overwhelmed with nostalgia, and thoughts of those long ago school days?

Those were the days of my crush on Diane Aquino, my close friendship with Carlotta Purdy, wondering if Sister Catherine would really withhold our diplomas until we finished every assignment in our spelling books. Those were also bad times; being the smartest student in my grade didn’t exactly endear me to a few bullies.

Twenty years later, I’d still like to slug two particular bullies just once. From a 35 year old’s wiser perspective, I know that “kids can be mean” and that they were just being stupid kids. Still, enlightenment aside, I’d pay real money to whack them both on the head fifty or sixty times with a whiffle ball bat.

Looking around, I don’t feel any longing for those days. Even seeing so many sites of childhood memory in failing condition doesn’t trigger any real nostalgia or emotion. Those days don’t even seem real anymore — it’s like looking at someone else’s life.

My mind drifts back to a similar expedition some months before. A high school buddy was in town, and we drove by his old house in Quincy, and toured the Back Bay of Boston where our friend David once lived. We hit all the old stomping grounds, including BC High, and the playground where we used to talk. Much of it looked the same, but nothing was the same. It wasn’t “ours” anymore. It wasn’t “our” Boston or “our” houses or “our” high school.

Everything was different. The same, but very different.

Times and people change, friends and family move on. The grandparents and old timers aren’t around anymore. The childhood neighborhood, the high school, the way the city seemed to belong only to you and your friends, all now exist only in memory. It’s a little depressing, but not painful. It tugs at the heart but doesn’t hurt.

That realization–actually stopping to think about it — is a little strange for me. My thoughts are often on yesteryear; my friends often comment I am the “keeper of the archives” because of my fond and encyclopedic memory of our glory days. Yet as I grow older, as things change, I find that the past, although still so important — is fading.

We’re part of someplace for only a certain time, and then we move on. Returning to stomping grounds of yesteryear will bring back memories, good and bad, but those places are not “yours” anymore. Life keeps you moving and you literally can’t go home again.

That particular truth is not necessarily a sad thing. It’s just life. I’m starting to accept it. Still, I’m proud to say, “I’m originally from Dorchester!”

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