Re-visiting your past

By Caitlin Kelly

One of the challenges of becoming an expatriate — which I did, leaving Canada in 1988 for the U.S. — is leaving behind much of your personal history: the schools you attended, the playgrounds where you skinned your knees, the parks and ravines you walked through with your family, favorite shops, restaurants, libraries or street corners.

I lived in Toronto ages five to 30, so most of my formative and defining memories lie there: first boyfriend, newspaper job,  apartment.

Toronto viewed south from Bloor
Toronto viewed south from Bloor (Photo credit: Small)

It happens when you live far away, even across the country.

Re-visiting my past remains, however silly or nostalgic, important to me. Some of the memories are painful, and I want to re-make them with a happier overlay, while others are pure joy, like once more taking the ferry across Toronto’s harbor, to the islands there, the sun glittering off the water and the gulls circling overhead.


Another well-traveled path I take, and will do so on our current visit north, is down the terrazzo hallways of my old high school.

I’ve been going back there for years as a guest lecturer on writing, speaking to senior students. I was badly bullied there for a few years when I was a student, so it’s a sweet vengeance to be welcomed back as a successful alum.

It’s odd to be there as an adult, not as the eager, excited, nervous young woman I was then, dying to start university and get on with my writing career.

My name is on a wall, lettered in gold in elegant Gothic script, with all the others who won Ontario scholarships, awarded to those with the highest averages in their graduating year. It’s comforting to see my name there, to feel remembered — even if my classmates’ children have already graduated from those same classrooms.

In May 2013, I returned to the Grand Canyon for a four-day trip, camping alone in a tent. I was excited beyond measure to get back there — my last time was June 1994, and I hiked 12 hours in a day, climbing out exhausted and crusted with the salt of my evaporated sweat.

English: view into Grand Canyon from South Rim...
English: view into Grand Canyon from South Rim, Arizona, USA Deutsch: Blick in den Grand Canyon vom Südrand, Arizona, USA Français : vue dans le Grand Canyon du bord sud, Arizona, États-Unis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But I wanted to return for another reason, to make that 90-minute drive back to Flagstaff knowing I was coming home to a loving spouse; when I returned from my previous trip, my then-husband walked out for good.

For decades, I’d associated one of the best journeys of my life with one of its most unexpectedly painful moments.

In May 2008, Jose and I traveled to Mexico, back to Cuernavaca, to the apartment building where my mother and I lived when I was 14. I used to walk up the hill to my school, where two tall, narrow windows offered an extraordinary view — one of Popocatapetl, the other Iztaccihuatl, two volcanoes far in the distance.

I used to look out my second-floor window into a field, and assumed it was long since built up and paved over. But it was still a field and our building, at the corner of Copales and Naranjos, appeared unchanged as well.

I wanted to wave to my 14-year-old self, with her waist-length blond hair, listening to Creedence on her record player, and say: “It’s going to be OK. Really.”

My mother suffered a breakdown while we were there; the details too arcane for this blog, but it abruptly and permanently ended my time in her custody, making that apartment and the field and the hill the last place that I lived in her care.

Down the road is a small waterfall, its cul-de-sac filled with plant nurseries. I bought three small pottery palomitas there — unglazed doves — that hang on our balcony in the summer, small, happy memories re-created.


And, when Jose and I went to visit his hometown, Santa Fe, New Mexico, we visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. It has a small courtyard with an apricot tree — the one his late mother used to make jam from.

The museum now stands on the land where his late father’s Baptist church, and their home, once stood.

“This used to be my bedroom,” he said, standing before some exquisite and priceless canvas.

I didn’t know quite what to say.

How sad to never be able see your old haunts.

English: A Areal map of Santa Fe, New Mexico d...
English: A Areal map of Santa Fe, New Mexico during the Railroad era in 1882. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s blogger Dara Clear, eloquent as always — who traded his native Ireland for Australia:

Each one of of us is Homer’s Odysseus, journeying, probing, questing but perhaps ultimately compelled to return to Penelope, to that place of safety, familiarity and love. I am not being literal here, I am not saying we are all the male hero archetype who dutifully returns home to the stoic wife after his manly adventures. My suggestion is that on a profound, primal, ancient level, we are all borne on the same unstated dynamic that is best described as the journey and the return.

We set out on our voyages understanding, or maybe just suspecting, that the journey and its concomitant adventures and challenges, will not be indefinite. There will be an end. There will be a settling. And there will be a return. The return becomes whatever the traveler determines to be home. And home is the place of belonging.

Home can also be the opposite of that, highlighting the sense of not belonging, the sense of otherness. Home then, embodies a strange paradox in that it can be understood as both happy assimilation into place and tribe as well as being one’s concept of defiance, individuality and difference.

From this interpretation we can see how identity is closely connected to home. Are we a product of, or a reaction to where we are from? And what happens if you are dispossessed of a birthright as indelible as belonging? How do you keep your identity if you have no place to which you can return?

And here is Chris Colin’s story from Afar, (a terrific American travel magazine), about going back to West Texas:

There is—I don’t think this would offend anyone—nothing here. The main drag runs past the county courthouse, the old jail, Silverton’s two eateries, and the gas station, which holds a freezer that doubles as the town’s grocery store. The rest of Silverton is shuttered businesses and silent residential streets. The edges of town bleed into the farms and wastelands of Briscoe County…

Silverton may be thimble-size, but the thimble contains multitudes. Nearly every human is kin, for starters. On Main Street one afternoon, Tom waved to an old lady sitting on a front porch, then decided to circle back around and park. It was his mother. We stood on the porch and discussed the tornado that ripped down the street years ago, 21 people killed…

During my week in Texas, my days were spent roaming 21st-century Silverton with my great-uncles. By night I lost myself in its late 19th- and early 20th-century history. I grew up hearing of this microscopic town as a mythically happy and industrious place. My great-grandmother Bethel lived to 98 and told us stories about weekend-long dances, epic horseback rides to school, and the joy of putting on her Sunday best just to stroll Main Street.

Do you ever re-visit places from your childhood or past?

How does it feel when you go back?

41 thoughts on “Re-visiting your past

  1. When I was 15, I went to a convention for Jewish high schoolers in the city I grew up in until the summer I turned 9. It was a strange, wonderful experience, and I visited places I hadn’t seen in years. It was lovely.
    And several posts ago, I went back through all my initial attempts at writing novels. Boy, did that bring me back a bit!

  2. Yep, I do. My folks retired to the town where I grew up, so I go back there quite a bit. It’s changed, but a lot of things haven’t, and a few of my friends I graduated from high school with are still there, and we catch up now and again. It feels old and new at the same time. A couple years ago, the high school was torn down (a new one was built), and that felt weird. A bunch of us on Facebook who had gone to that school over the years spent some time reminiscing about different parts of the school and sharing photos of it. That was actually really nice, because it brought some closure, I think, to all of us. I suggested that maybe some of the bricks from the old school could be incorporated into a walkway or something at the new school, as sort of a symbol of continuity and new beginnings. I heard that actually happened, but I haven’t verified it.

    Weirdly, however, the place that feels like home is where I was born and then spent 15 years of my adult life–Albuquerque. I go back there now and everything feels like it’s supposed to, like I still fit, that it’s holding my place for me. That’s home. I don’t understand why that’s more home than where I spent most of my childhood and high school years, but it is.

    Nice topic. Thanks.

    1. I love your idea of re-using some bricks…bizarrely (!???), at my suburban NY apartment building, there is a small walkway lined with bricks incised with the word Toronto. How unlikely is that? So it has always made me feel at home to have that reminder there every day.

      I also like being able to fit back in. You say it so well. Thanks!

  3. That’s so funny, I was just writing a draft on a similar topic this afternoon. I moved to the US last year and every six months I have gone back to Brazil to visit family and friends. Each trip had a special taste of the old home. First time I went back I felt relieved by realizing that the important things would stay the same, even though I was away. Second time I had a sense of non-belonging, feeling like I grew so much and went through so much that my feelings toward the city, my old room, the house I hosted so many parties, were different. It felt like they hold my past, my memories, my childhood and not more than that. Does that make any sense?

    1. Absolutely!

      I’ve been returning to Toronto almost yearly for more than 20 years…and almost every time I feel quite differently about it as I change and grow. When we married in 2011, I did choose to do so in Toronto as I realized my emotional history was there — while most of my professional history is in NY.

      1. I like the way you identify the emotional history being in your country of origin, yet the professional history is in NY.
        I grew up on the outskirts of a thriving city and now live in a rural-suburbia. So very different.
        I went to see where I grew up and was deeply saddened to see it has become a ghetto. The playground I once chanted songs from a merry-go-round is now littered and scarred with gang graffiti. Nonetheless, I enjoyed strolling memory lane. My minds’ eye could look past the spray paint and beer cans…

      2. Ouch. That would be very difficult indeed.

        It’s odd for me to drive past all my old schools and homes as they are all the same. I feel like I could meet my 10 or 15 or 19 yr old self there. Only our home in Montreal, an apartment brownstone, was long ago replaced by a spiffy new townhouse.

      3. Somebody already said that, but it is funny how you separate your professional and emotional life into different cities and countries. I wonder if someday it will be the same for me…

      4. Life really changed for me professionally after moving to NY. It was a much, much tougher game, so the bulk of my professional growth occurred there, while most of “growing up” and initial identity formation (ugly phrase) happened in Canada. Makes sense to me!

  4. Caitlin, in Tucson, down by the railway line outside of Maynard’s, there is a tiny yellow vehicle that was used for track maintenance. It was made way up north in Canada, on Lake Superior. It is retired now and part of the train museum in Tucson. Small world. I have been home only three times in the last ten years at least. On the first trip I knew I would see my father for the last time (out of choice), the second time was for a niece’s wedding where I saw my brother for the last time and the third time was for his funeral a year later. I saw the part of Hamilton where family and extended family has lived for a long time – run down and dangerous, with prostitutes and drugs everywhere. I have no desire to go back but would love to see some of my family again. Although I do have some very happy memories of meeting my future husband there and the adventures we had together, I feel like I made it out.

  5. I went to Toronto again for a conference–it was the only time I had been back since I had been a kid and gone there to see relatives. It was odd: that sense of it being both familiar and strange, because I couldn’t quite remember anything specific about it. And yet there was that sense of it feeling most definitely like a place I had been before.

    But I really haven’t been back to the town I grew up in. I’ve passed by it without stopping. The whole place feels evil to me, and really stands in my mind for a place that seems idyllic but isn’t, because it’s this lovely small town that is teaming with drug labs, child abuse, human trafficking, and hate groups. And there is literally almost nothing for kids to do except 4-H and drugs or alcohol. So if they don’t feel like raising sheep, they get stoned. And it’s really just terribly sad. So many young people seemed so destroyed by it when I was growing up.

  6. I studied abroad in Toronto for an year. The picture from bloor reminds me of life in Toronto.
    Suddenly I remembered ex-boyfriend. He is Canadian and helped me lots took care of me and I loved him very much but somehow we didn’t go well and ended up breaking up.
    I have kept in touch with friends over there. I haven’t go back to there’re yet but I am thinking about it now.Thank you for sharing your idea.

  7. I do; I head back to the town I grew up in, Napier, quite often – have family still there. Curiously, there are places in my city, Wellington, that I used to effectively live in when I was a student thirty years ago, which I never visit these days. Maybe I should make the effort.

      1. It is. When I was growing up there was more of it, but such styles were somehow dowdy in the 1960s, and the heritage of the place wasn’t valued until the best of it had been knocked over. But ain’t that always the case.

  8. When my book was published I had the opportunity to give a short talk to the creative writing students at my old high school. I hadn’t been in those hallways in twenty years. It was amazing to see how much had changed (the demographics of the student population) and how much hadn’t (the same tan paint on the walls!) I was definitely nervous, and I wonder what they thought of me.

    1. So true! I get nervous when I do it only because (sigh) I am older than their parents at this point so probably just seem like one more fogey.

      But it’s great that you went back. Physically, the place hasn’t changed at all…so weird!

  9. Every time I drive by the park where my ex and I used to take a long walk together, I have a pinch in my heart. I have never stopped by to walk down there since then.
    It’s great you went back to the Grand Canyon despite your sad memories.

  10. What great stories! I think it is definitely important to visit places from your past, it makes you reconsider your life there in comparison to the life you have now. Thus I think it is wonderful how you make bad memories into good ones. I lived near Santa Cruz, California for a year during High School and am originally from the Netherlands. The life I had there and then always seems like a far-off dream to me. But because it was during one of my forming years it is still a big part of me.

    I visited it about two years ago. It was strange to see how little some parts had changed: the school, down town, Jamba Juice and American Apparel, the board walk, the mountains, the trails, the track, the library, the houses of my friends they were all there. It was as if I returned to that dream that seemed so far away and yet so close. The biggest difference was in the way my friends lived their life. But even that seemed comforting: no matter what they were doing, no matter that I lived all across the globe; they were still my friends.

    Thus I think that it is also a good way to renew your contact with friends you might not have seen for a while, but are important to you. A visit to the past might make you remember a special friendship that has the ability to be extraordinary again.

    1. Thanks…I think it’s true that where we live as a child,teen and young adult can have very powerful memories.

      We are actually having lunch this week with a friend I haven’t seen in probably six or seven years, if not more.

  11. A writer & blogger friend emailed me the link to this post because of the Cuernavaca connection. I’m from there, you see 🙂 What a lovely find. Thank you for a beautiful post.

  12. I’m no expat, but I do live nearly 2,000 miles away from my hometown. Reading your post really struck a chord with me; it’s only been 1.5 years since I left, but in that time I’ve missed too many graduations, weddings, funerals, etc. It can be hard to not be a part of that. But whenever I do go home, I have to make the rounds. To the canal toepath where I grew up biking or jumping off into the Potomac River; to El Ranchero, the traditional reunion spot for my high school friends; the homes or workplaces of various people who have mentored me through the years; the university where I first saw clearly the person I am supposed to be. Things change–my parents getting a new dog, friends moving on from where I left them, El Ranchero relocating–but these places still retain a rich nostalgia. They ooze that reality that my past lives there and always will. I might not always have been happy there, and I might feel some self-righteous vindication when I see a girl who teased me in middle school cashiering at the grocery store, but most of the time I was. These places helped to make me who I am, and it’s so important to go back and remember.

    1. Thanks for all those details!

      It’s odd to move on/away — then go back and see what has changed and what has not. I always bump into people from my past when I go back to Toronto, and the last time it was the woman ringing up a purchase at a craft store — who remembered me at 14 from camp. Good heavens!

      1. Those throwbacks are awesome! My favorites were when I would substitute teach during breaks from college, often alongside former teachers. Nothing like that to remind you that times are a-changin’.

  13. Last year in a class called ‘Human Systems’ we did an exercise to demonstrate sense of place in which we started with phrases, “I am from” and wrote what were essentially poems of where we come from.
    Mine began,

    “I am from the middle spaces, neither here nor there but everywhere,” because I often feel as though I lack a firm sense of place. My childhood town and home are gold-rimmed in memory and only tarnished when I go home, my high school years are better left to inspire emotions into my stories, and now, traveling, I am without that place that inspires the feeling of satisfaction that comes from fitting that puzzle piece into place on voyages home.

    Thank you for sharing the words of Dara–what a beautiful, articulate reflection on this life’s journey.

  14. I have spent about 5-8 years in several places over my life. Of my “ancestral hometown” (a Pennsylvania coal town where my family lived for seven generations), I pass through when traveling from the East coast to the midwest. What always strikes me is how physically small the buildings seem. After all, the last time I set foot in some of those buildings was when I was 8 years old! There are other reminders of the passage of time. I recognize names on tombstones. Childhood stores are long gone. My elementary school was torn down to make way for a glass “middle school.” If I close my eyes for a moment, I am transported back.

  15. I have spent about 5-8 years in several places over my life. Of my “ancestral hometown” (a Pennsylvania coal town where my family lived for seven generations), I pass through when traveling from the East coast to the midwest. What always strikes me is how physically small the buildings seem. After all, the last time I set foot in some of those buildings was when I was 8 years old! There are other reminders of the passage of time. I recognize names on tombstones. Childhood stores are long gone. My elementary school was torn down to make way for a glass “middle school.” If I close my eyes for a moment, I am transported back.

  16. Rather than replying with a wall of text, I make a note of this great article of yours. I am obsessed with re-living my past in this way, and I plan to write a post about it someday. Thanks for the inspiration!
    I think I want to challenge myself by meeting my younger self and her goals and convictions. It is not only about places and buildings, it is about simple items, too: E.g. my old university lecture notes provide a stargate / wormhole into the past.

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