Welcome to Usetaville

Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, Mexico where I lived at 14

By Caitlin Kelly

At a certain point in your life — after a few decades on earth, and especially if you know a specific location really well — you still see, and fondly remember, so many things that “used to” be there, hence usetaville.

In our Hudson Valley town, this includes long-gone antique stores, including the just-closed E-bike shop that used to be an antique store, the art gallery that used to be Alma Snape flowers and the photo studio that was once Mrs. Reali’s dry cleaners.

There’s a growing tree across our street I’ll never like as much as the towering weeping willow that once stood there, also long gone.

Of course, change is inevitable!

Businesses come and go — so many killed by the loss of customers in this pandemic — and in cities where every inch of real estate has commercial value, almost everything is up for grabs…the former three-chair hair salon I loved for many years is now part of the growing empire of two very successful local restaurateurs and the lovely cafe across Grove Street, formerly Cafe Angelique, has been a Scotch & Soda (a Dutch owned clothing chain) for a long time now. Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village of New York City, once a treasure trove of cool indie shops, is legendary for its rapid store turnover.

I enjoy reading the writing of British Airways pilot Mark VanHoenacker, who wrote recently in The New York Times about going back to see the interior of his childhood home in Massachusetts; he now lives in London.

A childhood home — if we lived in one house or apartment long enough and especially if our family has since moved out — may enclose a nearly undimmed set of early memories, as if its walls formed a time capsule we sealed behind us as we left. And if the possibility of retracing my flight from this Pittsfield house has both troubled and fascinated me for many years — if it’s what recently compelled me to write “Imagine a City,” a memoir and travelogue, and if even now I can’t decide whether to climb this darned staircase — well, my favorite stories remind me that I’m not alone as I grapple with the meaning of return.

I recall a scene from Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Home,” a modern rendition of the parable of the prodigal son, in which Jack — like me, the son of a clergyman — writes a letter: “Dear Father, I will be coming to Gilead in a week or two. I will stay for a while if that is not inconvenient.” After Jack walks into the kitchen for the first time in 20 years, his sister tells him, “The cups are where they always were, and the spoons.” I think, too, of Henry James’s Spencer Brydon in “The Jolly Corner,” who after 33 years abroad returns to his childhood home in New York and an encounter with a ghostly self who never left.

I haven’t been back to my earliest childhood home — on Castlefrank Road in Toronto — in many, many years. It was very big house with a long deep backyard and I still remember well my playmates who lived on either side of us. But I left it when my parents split up when I was six or seven and we moved into an apartment downtown. As a teenager I lived with my father for four years in a white house on a corner, easily visible when driving in Toronto, but have never asked to see it again inside.

So many changes!

I suspect these sorts of memories are very powerful if you spent a decade or more in the same home and if you liked living there. When we visit Montreal, our hotel windows overlook Peel and Sherbrooke — my home for a year at 3432 Peel Street in a brownstone — gone! My visits to Ben’s delicatessen a few blocks south — gone! But — hah! — the glorious Ritz Carlton is still there; we used to have Friday night dinners there when my mother hosted a TV talk show.

I lived for all off four months in an apartment in Cuernavaca, Mexico with my mother — and decades later went back to see how much it had changed, including the empty field next to it.

Not at all!

I had some difficult moments living there, but it was very good to revisit the place and see it again.

I’ve been back to my high school and university campus, both in my hometown of Toronto, and even once revisited my former summer camp, the one I attended every year ages 12-16 and loved.

Our town also holds a few 18th century buildings, including a stone church from 1685, the second oldest in New York state.

Do you have specific places that you remember well — now long gone?

Have you ever revisited your childhood home(s)? How was it?

9 thoughts on “Welcome to Usetaville

  1. it’s such an interesting experience and one never knows how it will feel. I visited my ‘growing up’ house years ago, and the owners had let the yard and exterior of the house fall by the wayside a bit which made me sad. 3 years ago, I drove by again with my sister who was visiting, and it had been restored to it’s original ‘luster,’ though with a lot of landscape changes and some new colors, and I was happy with the changes and care. so funny how these places can have such an emotional impact on us.

  2. Jan Jasper

    Very interesting topic. A couple decades ago, my cousin and I went to look at our late grandmother’s house. She had died quite a few years earlier. We had wonderful memories of the ivy-covered walls of her modest brick 1920s era bungalow on her tree-lined street, her vast flower and vegetable gardens, and her multiple cherry trees in the yard. When we pulled up to the house – and we were also able to see the back yard by driving down the alley – we seriously regretted having seen it. The place was pretty much defoliated. The ivy had been removed from the house. The back porch with the glider where we’d sit on our grandfather’s lap, the cherry trees, the flowers – all gone. We left feeling very very sad.

  3. I spent the first 18 years of my life in the house my father built when he and my mother first married. They lived there for 32 years before “down-sizing” to a house with a smaller garden to look after. Many years later, when the house was advertised for sale again, my mother – by then in her 80s – went to an “open house” to look through it. She said it was almost unrecognisable; walls had been shifted, the basement had been turned into proper rooms and generally everything was different. She found it upsetting. After hearing that, I never wanted to return. I can still walk through those rooms, as they were in my childhood, in my mind and that’s enough for me. I’ll leave the memories intact.

  4. patricepdx

    My parents purchased their Portland (Oregon) home a few months prior to my birth in 1961, and my widowed mother lives there still. Except while living abroad for a few years, I have seen the interior of that home with frequency all of my 61 years. Last year my sister arranged that we take our mother to visit her childhood home also in Portland, which my grandparents sold during my childhood. I had occasionally driven past it, and had fond memories of early days there. When the current owner kindly welcomed us inside the well-maintained home, I was woefully unprepared for my involuntary gasp and uncontrollable gush of tears. Just being in that warm space overwhelmed my heart. My 85 year old mother was better at containing her emotion as she regaled us with stories of childhood antics. The current owner was astonished to learn that she and her ten siblings grew up in the two-bedroom home, with the un-insulated attic furnished like a bunkhouse. My grandfather was and ingenious and resourceful; he and my grandmother made it a lovely home for their 11 children on his single income from the USPS.

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