Commentary: The Persistence of Memory

Jul 2, 2010

Murray, KY – Many folks have made it their tradition to celebrate Independence Day with relatives close and distant. If you're one of those distant relatives, that means traveling home for the holiday. Commentator and Poet Constance Alexander recently visited her childhood home of Metuchen, New Jersey and observed, as you may this weekend, that over many years, some things have changed and some things have stayed the same.

My sister, Pamela, tells me that Main Street in my old hometown is now "restaurant row." Hard to imagine that the hardware store has disappeared, along with Marmax Shoes, Morris Stores and Seldow's Stationary. Recently I visited Metuchen and stayed at Pam's house, so I got to see the transformation up close and personal. For my five days in residence, I managed a daily jog around town, always making mental notes about the things that are different and the things that remain the same.

My sister was right. The restaurants are a highlight. Main Street used to be lined with banks, retail outlets and businesses. Now many of the old places are gone, replaced by eateries with cuisines both mouth-watering and diverse. The corner that housed Morris's Department Store is now host to an Indian restaurant, an Italian trattoria and a caf with espresso, exotic teas and various confections.

Marmax Shoes has morphed into Alessi's, an upscale ristorante. Down the street is a seafood place, and across from it is Chinese. Lucky that the liquor store/deli that has always been on the corner of Main and Hillside endures, as most of the new restaurants require that you bring-your-own-booze.

As I jog each day, I pass spruced-up houses that I still identify by the names of the families that used to live there: Kinyon, Bailey, Shea, Brink, etc. The Clark's domain at 223 Main has a flower box now, and is an office instead of a home.

Saint Francis School and Cathedral still take up the whole block of Main Street, between Library Place and Elm. Unlike the other edifices in town, that seem smaller than they were when I was growing up, St. Francis is still an incredible Gothic hulk. As I gaze up at the dark windows of the school, I expect to see Sister Agnita, tapping her ring against the window and scowling at the seventh grade girls down below, as if enjoying a game of dodge ball at recess will send us all straight to hell.

The bells of the Presbyterian Church still chime the quarter hours, and trains chug through town all through the days and into the night.

A trip to my hometown is not complete without a stop at Hillside Cemetery. My parents are buried there, as well as my best friend, Kathy O'Connell, and a classmate from high school, Marcia Kulman, who died of leukemia when we were juniors. Hillside is more crowded than I recall from past visits. The names of parents of classmates have joined the town elders in this quiet, shady realm. On a hot summer afternoon, the sun sifts through the tall trees, leaving lacy patterns on the grass.

I am not alone in the cemetery. A woman gets out of a van. As I pass, I catch a glimpse of her face. She looks like the younger sister of another girl in my high school class. But then I am not positive, so I am shy to say anything. After a stop at a few graves, I circle around and see the name on the marker the woman is tending. She has to be one of the Hume girls.

Although the air is filled with birdsong and the distant hum of cars from Route 1, we talk quietly, almost in whispers. She fills me in on her sister's kids and newest grandchild. As she talks, I picture my classmate, Linda, as she was in high school -- a beautiful girl with a sunny smile whose intellectual curiosity was sparked by Mr. Bonnet, our World History teacher sophomore year.

Thomas Wolfe declared in his famous novel, "You Can't Go Home Again," that "You can't go back to your family, back home to your childhood to dreams of glory and fame back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time - back home to the escapes of Time and Memory."

Wolfe was right in some ways, but going back does not have to mean longing for the past. For me, it is a way to connect with who I am and where I come from, a reminder that there were some good old days and some not so good. Every town is filled with beginnings and endings, with change the thread that braids them together.

Constance Alexander is Faculty Scholar/Arts & Humanities at Murray State University's Teacher Quality Institute. Her books are available at the Murray State University Bookstore or through