Thinking Backward

Of course, you can go home again; it’s just not the same. I recently returned to the scenes of my boyhood in South Minneapolis, drove along the parkway to Minnehaha Falls, past the house my grandfather built from which I set off to kindergarten at John Ericson School. Above the falls — I once wrote a poem with that as the title — there is a statue of Hiawatha carrying Minnehaha across the creek. (Or is it the other way around? I was never sure.) Fittingly, there is a replica of Longfellow’s house there as well. When I was a boy, it was a branch of the Minneapolis Public Library where I spent happy hours, children hours, though not so many as in the Roosevelt Branch, which was visible from the house to which we moved from 2810 E. Minnehaha Parkway.

Water still flows over the falls, endlessly, reminiscent of that Heraclitean river into which one cannot step twice. It is not place that changes so much as time, and half a century can turn the familiar into a strange if evocative setting. It is the past to which we cannot return. Knowing that may be the definition of nostalgia.

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I have sometimes wondered why Willa Cather did not return to Nebraska, why John Steinbeck did not return to Salinas, why F. Scott Fitzgerald did not return to St. Paul. For Fitzgerald, the Midwest was the repository of the national virtues that were lost in the East, as the elegiac finale of The Great Gatsby suggests. Why, when his life lay in ruins around him, did he not go back to the heartland? Now I know. After kindergarten, I entered St. Helena’s school where I spend eight years. The impressive Romanesque parish church was constructed during my last years there, and from the classroom, we could watch it rise, see our pastor, Father Rowan, scampering about the site, getting his money’s worth. He was rightly proud of his achievement. I tried to see it with a stranger’s eyes, the marvelous stained-glass windows, the beams bearing the Beatitudes, the sanctuary where I served as an altar boy. But I was assailed by memories of Lenten stations, and the confessionals brought back sobering reminders that all was not innocence in those days. The place was the same, but as Adam said to Eve on the way out of the garden, we live in changing times.

Such memories may interest you
to the degree that they elicit memories of your own. Each of us carries around in his secret self a personal calendar of events that makes each of us the particular person he is. Time is the great mystery, not least because it does not lie outside ourselves in the way that place does. Aristotle called it the measure of motion, but without a measurer, it could not be complete. We are the measurer, and we alter with the changes we observe, yet somehow retain them in the great, often mendacious, storehouse of memory. One does not have to be Heidegger, thank God, to see the connection between being and time.

Like Horace, we seek a permanent aere perennius, more enduring than bronze. In the back of St. Helena’s Church are bronze tables on which I found the names of my older brothers. (My Marine Corps experience began in 1946, so I did not qualify for listing.) But bronze is only a protest against time. It too, eventually, will erode.

We have here no lasting city. Certainly not Minneapolis. If memory like bronze is a stay against the constant flow of life, and of Minnehaha Falls, it is also the capacity of a soul made for eternity. The temporary recapture of youthful dreams, thinking of girls one had long forgotten, having coffee in The Canteen where all our teenaged evenings ended, provides an inescapable reminder of the age one is. The Morning Star and the Evening Star are two names for Venus, but in the afternoon of the faun, long thoughts will come, longer than those Longfellow ascribed to youth.

In the haunting title of Thornton Wilder’s novel, heaven’s my destination. Memory is the Mapquest on which the long journey from childhood to old age is traced. Trying to retrace it is a bittersweet experience. The road up and the road down may be the same road, but to travel it once in time and again in a later time, in memory, brings home the heavy thought that one remains in large part a stranger to himself.

Gatsby believed he could relive the past. His creator knew better. So does ours.

This column originally appeared in the October 2003 issue of
Crisis Magazine.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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