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A Walk Into the Past

What if you could go back in time?

Grandma's House

Last week, I had a chance to visit a place I hadn’t been since 1982, my great-grandmother’s house in Nogales. Arizona. Barely.

I say barely, because the house was built before the fence, before the wall, before the border patrol, before the drug trade, before lands south of the border became places from which to run. A fence was ultimately built 50 feet from where the house stood. A few years ago, it became a wall.

It was surreal to go back, to open the kitchen door and walk right in. My cousin has lived there alone and hasn’t changed a thing. It was like opening a door to a time capsule and stepping out into the late 1970s.

So many people were born and lived and died in that house. The air was thick with heat and memory and every step took me farther into fuzziness and the line between today and history was very thin. Surely the next object I touched would be a portkey of sorts, hurling me off into some alternate reality and I would be seven again, sitting on the front porch playing jacks.

Comments from the cousins would bring me back, “Remember this?” or, “Grandma’s chair was here.” We made our way through the years as we recalled them, each of us there with a different connection, a different reason for being there, with different memories and different feelings.

Whatever we thought or felt, it must be a rarity in this day and age to see your childhood reality so perfectly preserved, especially in such a unique location. I could say it is something of a privilege, but that might be taking it a little far in this case.

Certainly, most things in life that are relegated to memory must be relived only from photos or home movies, without the luxury of life size, 3-D form. And for most of our memories, that is probably just as well.

What if you had a family museum of your own, and were able to physically walk through rooms once inhabited by you and your family; or by you and your ex? Your childhood bedroom. Your first child’s nursery. The dining room all set for your first Thanksgiving? All, poignantly unremarkable at the time but heart-wrenching in hindsight.

I’ve quoted from Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town” in this blog before, but now that I’ve practically lived the third act firsthand, I’m doing it again.

Emily Webb is warned not to go back after her death, yet chooses to relive a day anyway. At first, she was happy to see her family and friends and her childhood home, but her visit soon turned to utter frustration and despair as she grasped that “nobody realizes life while they’re living it.”

She later recounts the truth about the visit to her afterlife cohorts, and gets a brutal response from Simon Stinson: “…That's what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those...of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another. ”

Whether that was an accurate assessment of the former residents of PO Box 1156, (it had no physical address at the time) I cannot say.

What matters more is whether or not it is an accurate assessment of ourselves, now, in the present moment.

We can all look back into the past, like Emily and Simon, with the eyes of judgment. Why did so and so do what they did? What happened to my marriage, my friendship, my insert regret here ?

When we look back to learn about ourselves and our own behavior, and not to dissect someone else’s, we get the very real chance to see our blind spots and limiting beliefs and create a better future in the now.

A future that someone will remember fondly someday.