SHREVEPORT, La. -- "Goin' Home." It keeps going around and around in my head as we drive around my old home town -- the slow, sweet musical theme Dvorak used for the largo in his New World symphony. By writing lyrics for it, a gifted pupil of his turned it into a kind of modern Negro spiritual, putting into words the plaintive, elegiac spirit of the music -- and the longing felt by anyone homesick for an irretrievable past:
Goin' home, goin' home, I'm a-goin' home;
Quiet-like, some still day, I'm jes' goin' home.
It's not far, jes' close by,
Through an open door;
Work all done, care laid by,
Goin' to fear no more.
Mother's there 'spectin' me,
Father's waitin', too.
Lots of folks gather'd there.
All the friends I knew.
Home, I'm goin' home!
We go to Sabbath services Friday night at my old synagogue, Agudath Achim, but it has downsized and moved into a new building plunked down in a new part of town, a carbon copy of little Agudath Achim synagogue in Little Rock. Everything's franchised these days.
I keep looking for my old rabbi, who taught me how to sound out the jots and tittles of the alef-bes, the Hebrew alphabet, and the meaning of the ancient words that contained worlds. It wouldn't be till much later that I realized Rabbi had a full name -- Rabbi Leo Brener -- for he was just Rabbi to us little kids. But he's long gone and nowhere to be seen tonight, though his presence is felt. In every word and sigh.
Not till we read the Kaddish, the prayer recited on the anniversary of a death, and hear the list of names do I fully realize how many figures of my childhood are no more. Their faces flash before me one by one, even more vivid than they were in life. Even stranger are the faces of the old- timers who are still here tonight, present and accounted for, their walkers at the ready. Which reminds me: I left my cane in the car. I would have fit right in.
We're staying in one of those indistinguishable motels on an indistinguishable freeway lined with indistinguishable franchise operations. It's kind of restful, being in a place that's no place. A man could live quietly, anonymously, comfortably there, with every need in walking distance if anybody ever walked any more: franchise food, multiplex theaters, antiseptic quarters with no distinguishing marks. Even the people seem franchised. It's the perfect no-place to disappear into. I daydream about being in a witness protection program in this neighborhood, work all done, care laid by, covered by layers of protective non-coloration, just blending into the gray.
Oh, to be lost in this sea of bland modernity that now covers the home town I knew. At last I could shed the ever more burdensome identity I've acquired over the years with every wrinkle, vanity, sin and regret. Why, it'd be the equivalent of a moral facelift. I'd be free of the past at last, that is, I'd be free of me. Just another driver in a traffic diagram.
I'm amazed at how little of the home town I remember is left. I keep getting lost. They seem to have paved it over and built some kind of bland, fake Shreveport on top. We could be in Sioux City or, Heaven forbid, a slice of Dallas or Atlanta or any Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area ... and they didn't even ask for my permission before they changed everything in town. That's what happens when you turn your back on a place for a few years and, when you come back, it's no longer a place. Not one with any distinguishing marks, anyway, as they say on the Wanted posters.
We take refuge from the enveloping nothingness of the modern city at the condo my big sister and her husband have taken for their visits back home. It, too, is indistinguishable from the row of structures alongside it. They, too, are all the same--till you go inside. Once through the door, this is the childhood home I remember, for it's full of furniture from our old house on Forrest Avenue. "Take whatever you want," my sister tells me again, but I wouldn't disturb a single piece. It's like a period room in a museum (Middle Class Household, circa 1950).
But there is one little picture I want, a photograph in an Art Deco frame of 1920s provenance that shows an older sister of my mother's, my Aunt Temya, the one who looked after my mother when they were being raised on what was essentially a battlefield somewhere on the Eastern front of the First World War.
After the war, Temya settled in Paris, the City of Light, where she and so many other Polish Jews would take refuge -- till that day a couple of decades later when they would be rounded up by the French, turned over to the German occupiers and shipped off in boxcars for Resettlement in the East, as it was called, never to be seen again. Her younger sister, my mother, had made her way alone, at 19, to this ever beckoning Land of the Free, where she would be taken in by a branch of our big, warm, sprawling and still hyperverbal family, God bless America.
We wrap Temya's old photograph carefully in tissue paper, cushion it with wrapping paper, and hide it deep in a pocket of my briefcase for the trip home to Little Rock. I feel I am carrying the most precious thing in the world. And maybe the next: memory.
Now I have a niece named for Temya, and she's the sweetest of the whole bunch. She's called Tammy in this ever New World. It's a very American transformation -- from the dark rotogravure tint of Temya's old picture into the Technicolor version of a smiling Tammy Greenberg that I put right beside it on my kitchen cabinet. So I can remember both every time I sit down for my morning coffee and renew my gratitude and rage, and mainly my wonder.
None of the visit home over the weekend seems to fit together -- the old and new Shreveports, the sharp memories and dull uniformity, the jagged edges and assuring continuities, the love and the fury, the good and bad and indifferent. ... It is all fragmentary in my mind. Like today's column.