The railroad tracks that cut through the middle of town for decades are gone. No trace remains of the playground where summer days were punctuated by the laughter of children and summer nights were celebrated by slow-dancing to records or a band playing in the gazebo.
Fast-food outlets and convenience marts create garish patches of neon colors along the main street where white frame houses stood. The soda shop — gathering place of students and young adults for years — burned down and a chain drug store has risen from the ashes.
The Victory Theater has been closed, its marquee taken down, its poster billboards whisked off to a dump, its customers preferring to drive a dozen miles or more to a shopping-mall movie house.
The ramshackle building where adventuresome boys climbed one flight up to learn to play pool in a room with a warped floor and straight tables is long gone. The old, gabled railway station that once housed the town library, with books tucked in clever little places in the building’s many angles, is just a memory.
The narrow, shady street of childhood has no more trees, but it still has some of the same residents — including a widowed cousin, a great-grandmother many times over, who’s lived there for more than 70 years and jokingly calls herself “the mayor of Penn Street.” But the street is mostly populated by noisy college students who can’t fit in the crowded dorms on the once-quiet college up on the hill which has become a sprawling university.
There are the usual stirrings of rebirth and change seen in older towns all around the country — busy civic organizations, another budding industrial park, one more fight over school consolidation, some sprucing up of the old Memorial Park and the addition of an Iraq war plaque there where it once was thought all the wars that would need memorializing had been tended to.
Spring Hill Cemetery remains neat and dignified, but bigger than ever, perhaps the strongest reminder of the passage of time. On a bright summer Sunday, the family gathered in a pavilion at the park — people who had driven in from around town, and from various parts of New York and Massachusetts and Pennsylvania and Ohio and Arkansas and West Virginia.
It is the annual family reunion, a ritual involving fewer people each year as the population of Spring Hill Cemetery grows and the younger generation finds other things to do with its time.
But they gather, nevertheless, and harvest the family grapevine: one couple is planning a trip to Ireland; several young relatives are in the military and awaiting deployment; another got a job as a police reporter for a Little Rock newspaper; another baby was born; two more folks retired; a few more were getting more hours at the factory up the highway where work was erratic.
Reminiscences, anecdotes and snapshots are passed around with the casseroles, hot dogs, cool drinks and desserts. For a few fleeting hours, the older folks become younger again as their memories are rekindled; the generation behind them realizes how close they are to becoming the older folks.
Their children explain once again to their children who is related to whom, and which one is a great uncle or a second-cousin-once-removed-who’s-really-more-like-an-aunt. And, no, they don’t know why so many cousins have the same first names, and, yes, it is confusing.
And then, too soon, it’s over for another year. The picnic things are packed in car trunks. The folks who move with canes or walkers are helped to their cars. The straggling kids who didn’t want to come along because they didn’t know anybody have to be separated, sometimes with tears, from distant cousins with whom they’ve quickly formed a bond.
There are promises to stay in touch, promises to visit, promises to meet here again next year. Usually only the last promise is kept, and not even that one can be guaranteed because it gets harder every year for some folks to make the trip. And some others folks really are very busy, you understand.
In the fading light of the day, on a fast drive through town before heading away for another year, the fast-food places somehow don’t stand out as garishly.
In the gathering shadows, you’d almost think some of the trees on the old street still are there. If you try, you can dimly see the teens of the ’50s lounging in front of the soda shop, twirling their car keys and checking their summer-slick hair, or notice the lights at the Victory Theater twinkling on again, or hear the soft music coming from the gazebo at the playground.
And you realize that you can go home again, if only for one day a year, and if only in your heart.
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