It was late author Thomas Wolfe (1900 – 1938) who coined the phrase “You can’t go home again.” He meant that you can’t truly go back to a place where you once lived, because so much will have changed since you left that it is not the same place any more.
I recently tested this out, making a short one-week visit to my birthplace – Melbourne, Australia – to visit my 95-year-old sister, Bobbie (Roberta), at my family’s urging, before it became too late for both of us.
After our aliyah in 1971, I used to go back regularly while my mother was alive, but my last trip was in 2012. It means traveling for almost 30 hours, which at my age is very difficult. My younger daughter, Tamara, came with me, and I couldn’t have managed without her.
I have only warm memories of Melbourne, and spent my first years in Israel quietly crying into my pillow at night for all I had left behind. My husband had persuaded me that our four children needed to know that they had their own country, their own people.
What did I remember of Australia? A sunlit land of relaxed, easy living. A laid-back people with their own amusing jargon that made you smile: “no worries”; “g’day, mate”; “a fair go”; “see you this arvo”; “fair dinkum”; “a good bloke/Sheila”; and so on.
What did I find? All of the above, really. Far more high-rise buildings, huge shopping malls, enormous department stores and supermarkets. But these don’t define a home. A home is your memories, and they assailed me everywhere.
A nephew took me on a nostalgic drive around the places where I grew up. The street where I spent my childhood – still there, but our home no longer exists, replaced by a block of flats. My primary school – oh, there’s the field next door, where I’d have lunch with my friends on the grass, and we’d make daisy chains out of the dandelions and wear them in our hair until the bell rang summoning us back to class. Along the beachfront and esplanade where I spent summer Sundays, but the skating rink has gone, although Luna Park remains. My high school on the lake. City streets where I worked. The synagogue where I was married...
In that brief week, I spent wonderful time with my sister – we played Scrabble together, had a picnic in the Botanical Gardens and talked of family events of 70 years ago as though they were yesterday. Saw beloved family members of both my family and my husband’s, at the same time achingly aware of those no longer with us. Just time also for morning coffee with a dear friend whose link now is only by email, and the sadness of saying goodbye again.
Melbourne wasn’t really “home” anymore, but it was beloved nevertheless. I knew soon I would miss the people and be lonely for them. Strangely enough, it was also Thomas Wolfe who wrote: “Loneliness is, and always has been, the central and inevitable experience of every man.” Those you have loved and lost will always remain an ache in your heart, and I missed them in all the old, familiar places . At night, their ghosts filled my dreams.
As our plane took off, I knew it would be my last visit, and I felt the tears behind my eyelids. It was a long, difficult flight back to Israel, but as we left Istanbul for the last hours of the journey to Ben-Gurion Airport, I remembered a poem I had once written on another absence from Israel, titled “Back to Jerusalem,” and I realized it was still relevant. I recited it silently as we drew closer to Israel:
It was not for long
I left you,
But each parting
Is a small death.
Now I am returning
To leafy arms of pine,
A kiss of sunshine –
Gold on gray stone.
The gentle wind
Whispers secrets to me.
Is my embrace.
I have missed you...
Missed your gentle blessing,
But now I am returning –
The writer, who has lived in Jerusalem for 48 years, is the author of 14 books. Her latest novel is Searching for Sarah. firstname.lastname@example.org