This past weekend I returned to New Jersey to help my mom move out the last of our belongings in the Colts Neck house, and to celebrate a childhood friend at her bridal shower. It was an odd feeling returning to NJ after so long. And with each childhood “hometown” we stopped in (there’s three!) I was struck with a peculiar pull in the stomach and heaviness in the heart.
Growing up I was always torn in deciding which town to call my hometown. But what’s the meaning of home, anyways? Was it Swedesboro – a sleepy, south Jersey town with
produce stands at every corner, and where I lived as a newborn until second grade?
Or was it Robbinsville – the booming central Jersey town where I grew up exploring the woods, catching frogs, and riding my bike with friends all around town (even when we weren’t supposed to?), until we moved away my freshman year of high school.
And then there’s Colts Neck – rolling hills of farmland and close to the shore, it is a place where I discovered and lost myself multiple times throughout high school. Out of all the places I’ve lived, the Colts Neck home holds the most memories I interpret now as defining moments in my life.
So where’s home then?
They’re all home to me.
But the hardest part about going back to a place you once called home, is seeing how it changed without you. It’s seeing the places you always swore to yourself would remain sacred melt away and become shells of what they used to be. I am only a shell of what I used to be as well, and that’s okay. As much as I’d like the places and people impacting me as a child to remain the same, it’s nostalgia speaking. Places and people are not meant to be static, as sad as I am to see old stomping grounds evolve. I see the same thing in the specialty running industry – people coming in nostalgic for some old shoe long gone, and finding it hard to understand the new technology is for the better.
During my short time in NJ I was surrounded by love, and it made it harder to leave. Seeing my childhood friend as an absolutely stunning bride at her bridal shower was amazing. We haven’t truly spoke in many years and when I saw her for the first time again I found myself feeling nervous. Nervous I wouldn’t know the person standing in front of me anymore, even though we spent almost every waking moment of our childhood together. And it got me thinking. It is incredible to see how people grow and flourish as they lead their own lives and leave home.
Around my junior year of high school through my freshman year of college I pushed everyone away. I lost valuable friendships in my life, I let some of the most important people in my life slip right through my fingers as I faced inner demons I shouldn’t have faced alone. But a few clung on relentlessly even as I pushed them away and they refused to let me drop them from my life. Whether it was through calls/texts to check up with me or knocking on my dorm room endlessly until I finally emerged to hang out, to these friends I truly thank you. Because as I sat at the bridal shower I knew I let this friendship slip away back then.
But that’s what nostalgia does to you. It lets you think of your past with a blurred filter; a filter romanticizing the people, places, what-ifs, and memories, while in reality you know you did the best you could in the moment. I don’t often like to give in to nostalgia because as I yearn for these familiar places I once called home, I know I often felt a different way in the moment.
But as I drove down 295 and watched the endless farmland fly by me through the window, I embraced the nostalgia. I remembered when we were little how my mother would drive me and my sisters back to Swedesboro after we moved, so we could see friends so close to us we considered them family. I remembered the excitement I felt as my mom turned off 295 at exit 10 and the small town of Swedesboro came back to life.
As I drove through Robbinsville and Colts Neck I was pleasantly surprised as old routes came back to me automatically, even when I thought I had long forgot them. In Robbinsville I passed the roads I used to run endless miles on, and the places my friends and I would sneak off to when we promised we were only biking around the neighborhood. In Colts Neck I flew down the roads I used to speed down on hot summer nights as I tried to make it home before curfew. When I passed by Delicious Orchards I remembered strolling through the aisles of fresh produce and baked goods with Erin, trying to sneak our favorite butter almond cookies into the basket without our Dad noticing.
And then there are the places I didn’t see. Turnstile Roastery in Belmar, where I worked one magnificent summer and came home often smelling of espresso. I always loved the sweet smell of coffee beans roasting early in the morning when I opened, so sweet you’d think we were baking cookies inside. And Spring Lake beach, where I used to run on the boardwalk before Hurricane Sandy wiped it away, and I used to sit in the Gazebo and watch the sun sink deep into the sea as waves crashed into the sand. And then there’s Thompson Park – one of the only places I could go and get lost in the woods and forget about life for awhile.
These little moments and memories are what make all these places home for me. I won’t lie, it was weird to go back to the Colts Neck house and see other people living in it, using the space in a different way I never imagined. I held my emotions at bay as my husband, mom and I made endless trips up and down the basement stairs to the pod in the driveway, carrying all that remained of what made this house our home. When it was time to go I was excited to leave because over the course of the few hours it took us to move everything I realized this house was no longer my home. There will never be a time again I will return for Thanksgiving or Christmas. I needed to leave so I could remember it how it once used to be and not how I just saw it. As I pulled away and looked at the brick facade one last time, I could almost convince myself the house was what it was four years ago.
And as sad as this post may seem, it’s not meant to be depressing. New Jersey may not be my home anymore but eventually I’ll make my own home and new memories. After all, I can always go back. There’s no telling what the future may hold.
© Allison Donaghy 2016 All Rights Reserved