Carnett: Home again, home again

Novelist Thomas Wolfe got it wrong. I'm convinced you can go home again!

Two Sundays ago at church a couple slid into the pew in front of me just before the service began. They talked quietly and, though I didn't intentionally listen to their conversation, I thought I recognized the language they were speaking.

A few moments later the pastor directed congregants to introduce themselves to worshipers around them.

I shook hands with the couple and asked if they were from Korea.

"Why, yes," the man said with a smile. "We've been in this country 14 years."

I told them that I was stationed in Korea with the U.S. Army for 18 months in the mid-1960s — probably before either of them was born. I confided that I'd made many good friends there, and had fallen in love with Korea's culture and cuisine.

"Have you ever gone back?" the wife asked.

"No, but I'd like to," I said. "I know the country has changed spectacularly. It was mostly agrarian when I was there. I hear it's become very high-tech."

"You wouldn't recognize it," she advised, "but you'd enjoy it."

I'm certain I would.

I have a friend who was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland. She returned for the first time in 40 years this summer.

Talk about a culture shock!

She was attending an international symposium and stayed at a small inn a few blocks from where she'd lived as a girl. She walked past her former residence on the way to the symposium every day. Her family no longer owns it.

"The house looks much as it did when I was a girl, but the neighborhood is very different," she said.

The newsstand where she bought her father's daily paper is gone, as is the candy shop where she bought "sweeties" after school. High-end boutiques, tourist shops and restaurants have replaced former flats and tenements.

"I had many flashbacks as I walked the old neighborhood, but I didn't see a single familiar face," she said. "I was probably the only one there who remembered the neighborhood as it had been in the 1960s and '70s."

Yet, she felt very much at ease.

My grandparents bought a home on Balboa Island in 1942 for the outrageous sum of $7,000. I lived there with my parents and grandparents for the first seven years of my life and loved it.

The last time I walked through the front door of that house was 1965. My grandmother sold it in 1966 while I was serving in Korea. I grieved the loss of the residence for years.

Ten years ago I drove to the island from my Costa Mesa home to take a walk along the bay front. I do that occasionally.

By chance, I walked past the old family dwelling on Marine Avenue, just a few houses from the bay. An elderly gentleman sat in a chair on the front porch.

I did something that I almost never do. I stopped to initiate a conversation with a stranger.

"Afternoon, sir," I said from the sidewalk. "I used to live in this house as a boy."

"You did?" he asked.

"My grandparents bought it in '42 and my grandmother sold it in '66."

"What was your grandmother's name?" he asked.

I told him.

"She's the woman I bought it from!"

He got up from his chair, came over to the sidewalk and gave me a hearty handshake.

"Would you like to come in and take a look around?"

Would I? He didn't have to ask twice!

It turned into one of the happiest reunions of my life. Though it had been remodeled a bit, the old place looked essentially as I'd remembered it, though smaller. I saw the fireplace in the den that had almost burned the house down during the Christmas of '49 when we'd filled it too densely with wrapping paper.

The memories that were stirred that afternoon were priceless. The kindly gent bestowed upon me an invaluable treasure.

See? It is possible to go home again!

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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