That Recurring Dream in Which I Return to My Childhood Home

Why do I keep going back there? It isn’t as though there are lost idyllic days to be retrieved. Why am I even writing about it? Only because I dreamed it again last night and its residue is clinging to my consciousness at this very moment.

We lived above a store in a two-story building on Coney Island Avenue, an undistinguished brick dwelling in a row of them, all attached and nearly identical. Now and then I actually type the address into Google maps, switch to “street view” and wander about like a ghost. I notice details: a nineteenth century-style cornice, narrow windows in rows of three, the great daunting width of the street.

And as much as I want to believe otherwise, I can see from these visits that we finally leave no trace of ourselves in the scenes where we have lived our lives. New signs go up above the shops. New smells fill the kitchens. We vanish entirely.

In the dream, though, I enter through the small foyer with its tiles of yellow and black and climb the first flight of wooden stairs, taking care to hold onto the banister and stepping carefully into the shadowy hallway. I approach the door and find it locked. I am holding a key but of course it doesn’t fit.

And the weird part (as if this whole thing isn’t already weird enough) is that my mother opens the door, not as the young woman she was when we lived in this place, but as the elderly lady she is today. Odder still, she is holding a chubby, docile baby in her arms. She sets him down on a big plush chair and he seems quite content, watching me quizzically, as though he belongs here and I do not. And he is certainly right about that.

Everything is both familiar and strange, even the triangle of light that enters from the
kitchen into the living room, and the fire escape outside the back window above an alley, and the pulley-operated clothesline connected to the building, with its clothespins weathered gray as driftwood.

I suppose we are all either haunted or nourished by our childhoods. Maybe my dream expresses nothing more than that universal yearning to go back and fix something, find something, or figure something out. But all I feel here is the heaviness of history and a sense of the separateness and mystery of my mother, whom I never expected to answer the door. She is as inscrutable and elusive in this dream as she was in my childhood, not that she was absent but rather that she was present in a misplaced kind of way — angry and overwhelmed, which later turned into loneliness and sadness.

I started writing this in the morning, sipping my coffee, all awash in the dream. I had no idea how much it was about my mother.

Writing keeps you honest, I guess.

About my mother. Lately I have felt that she is on some secret trajectory of her own, and perhaps she always was, and suddenly it seems to me that she is very brave. I think of
her dressed in red or pink and wearing shiny trinkets and singing herself to sleep to dream of days she thinks were happy.

Maybe I met her in her dream last night, tending a child in the place we used to live, old and alone but not aware of it.

This entry was posted in Family History, Memoir, On Writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to That Recurring Dream in Which I Return to My Childhood Home

  1. Jay says:

    I was convinced I’d left a comment here .. but it doesn’t show. I seem to have ‘lost’ several comments this week. 🙁
    What you’ve written is very interesting. It’s almost as if you have two selves in this dream, the one who thinks going back to that period in your life will make everything come ‘right’ and be the same, and the other who recognises that you are now separate and distinct from your mother and you must now see her and relate to her as a discrete adult.
    It’s also interesting because I have had nightmares about returning to my old childhood home. I thought I was quite happy there, but apparently there were demons. Once, years ago, I did call in to see the old place and on setting foot into the entrance hall, I had such an overwhelming sense of horror that instead of taking the lift up to my floor and looking at the front door as I’d intended, I turned tail and ran.
    Maybe that was because of the dreams I’d had, or maybe it just brought to the surface feelings I haven’t yet acknowledged.

  2. Cynthia says:

    Thank you for this, Jay. I very much appreciate your reflections. Here is something else that a friend of mine said, which I think is worth sharing: “I’ve had your dreams before, part of me wanting to slip back into a time when I didn’t know things weren’t as good as they might have been, but all the while knowing my key wouldn’t fit the door. Dreams allow us to process (even when we don’t know how much we still need to do that), to understand, and to forgive.”

  3. Jay says:

    Seems I left you my fiction sub-domain link by mistake! Not that I mind getting extra readers there, but I haven’t gone out of my way to advertise it.
    It’s new, and I do it for the writing practice, so I’m really pleased you like it! 🙂

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