The title of Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 posthumous novel came from the Australian-British journalist and writer Ella Winter, who asked Wolfe once, “Don’t you know you can’t go home again?”
And while Winter and Wolfe are right, you cannot go home again, at least not the home you remembered as a child or a teenager, you can create a new kind of home, a reunion with old friends in a verdant backyard north of Kansas City, Missouri with 70-degree weather, mimosas, and apple fritters.
A magical place where our seven children swing from a tree begging to go higher, play in the sandbox, blow bubbles, inspect a blade of grass, and unearth “fossils” from the Smithsonian kit given as a gift.
It is surreal to see your college friends two decades from when you first met them–grey in our hair, some bodies less supple, more ample, crow’s feet framing our eyes– to witness the visages of our collected children, some easy replications, at least visibly, of their parents, while others represent earlier branches of a family tree revisited or reimagined entirely.
While we drink our souped-up orange juice, the kids drink collapsible juice pouches with little yellow straws. As a collective, we wipe other children’s noses, tag-team a diaper change in a hammock (not recommended), replace lost shoes with another’s outgrown sandals, and supply more strawberry-scented bubbles for the little ones learning how to breathe life into iridescent beauty.
We function as a unit, and it is exactly how many of us imagined a village would act with our children–responsive, loving, and unworried about which child is whose when wiping noses, changing diapers, and offering up more bubbles.
Some of us have these villages at home, others of us do not. Whatever our situation, for this magical Sunday we remember why we are friends across the middle-aged distance and hectic pace of our lives.
One father swings in a hammock with his infant son, who is all blonde curls and thigh rolls. The baby is asleep and nestled near his father’s warm shoulder. A friend of a friend borrows another’s cell phone to capture her husband and youngest son. Another friend offers a single mother a chance to drink a hot cup of coffee on the tree-lined porch by taking her daughter to play with the others. One mother consistently swings the kids; another grabs the juice pouches. All of us are responsible and still having fun.
Our children, ages eight to not quite a year, for the most part, get along. There may have been a small bite on the tree swing, but only teeth and a cotton t-shirt with a lion on the front were involved. There is an easy give-and-take of only children melding with siblings, of negotiating toys, turns in the sandbox or on the trampoline, and the happiness of witnessing our children befriend one another, if only for today.
As friends across the state, across the country, we experience our loves and losses together. A divorce. A layoff. A mother with breast cancer. A daughter going through her dead father’s possessions and letters, listening to her living grandmother’s instructions for where to bury her, what shade of lipstick to put on for the visitation.
We hold each other up when we feel like falling down. We forgive each other, again and again, when we forget to call or text or let time stretch out between us, like a clean sheet between two chairs, a child-filled fort of forgetfulness. We know our foibles and our strengths. We have seen each other at our best and worst.
We keep refilling each others’ mugs with coffee, plates with French toast and strawberries. When brunch in the backyard is finished, we hug each other for a long time, happy to hold the body which holds the heart of the human being who knew us when, who knows us now, who still keeps holding us despite our many imperfections.