On Being Back… Without

Have you had this experience?

You go back to a place you know well and haven’t been to for a while. Your circumstances have changed, and the feeling you get being there is both excruciatingly familiar and utterly strange.

It is such a complex experience, and since it happened to me yesterday, I’ve been trying to come up with some way of describing it.

For more than 30 years my husband, Andy Gardner, and I lived at the edge of a small village in rural northeastern Pennsylvania. We were both self-employed, so we were able to work from home. We had friends there, and each of us was active in several organizations and projects. But the place was remote and conservative, and for me it never truly felt like home. We had to drive 45 minutes to get to the supermarket, office supply store, doctors, etc.

When Andy died in August 2020, I knew I didn’t want to stay there. A few weeks later, I started looking for a new place to live, and in mid-November I found a little house in Ithaca, New York that I knew was mine.

I go back every now and then to Pennsylvania—to see friends, to go to my eye doctor or tax preparer. Every time I drive toward the village on those familiar roads, that strange feeling begins to overpower me. This is too familiar. And yet it is not familiar at all, because Andy is no longer here. My body thinks I’m going home, but I’m not, not at all. Am I the same person? I feel like someone who was mortally wounded in battle, was unconscious for a long period of time, and yet, miraculously, have awakened. I have the sense that my previous life has become a small, condensed, precious thing encased in glass.

Yesterday, I came back to the area for a doctor’s appointment. Afterwards, I had a couple of hours to wait before meeting a friend for tea, so, since there are no nice coffee shops in that area, I decided to go to the Wegmans supermarket. For many years, Andy and I would do our shopping together there. I always loved those conversations about our shared needs that took place in the aisles: “Do we need coffee?” “Maybe we should get some salmon.” Once, another shopper approached us and told us we looked like a really interesting couple.

I went to the Wegmans café and read for a while. Then, before it was time to meet my friend, I decided to say hello to Andy’s and my favorite cashier, whose aisle we always went to. She wasn’t there. And something about her absence made me feel as if my entire life back had been sucked away, leaving only the blasted-out warehouse that was this bustling supermarket.

Here’s how I can best define that feeling of going back under new circumstances: it’s as if only a tiny little pipette emerges from the glass casing of memory to connect my present to my past. And yet, because that thin channel is the only route through which who I was can encounter who I am, the strangeness and loneliness of the present flies backwards, and the familiarity and sweetness of the past rushes forward. They collide, and I am uprooted.

Photo: Andy in Malta, 2017

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *