Time has left its mark on Warren, Ohio. The once thriving steel mills and factories of Warren and neighboring Youngstown are distinctly quiet these days, their stillness a painful reminder to a community with few, if any, options. Warren was never a pretty town, but now it wears a desolate, somewhat abandoned look.
Nearly three years had passed since our last visit, and though I conceded the economy's tenacious grip on my hometown, I had brooded for weeks over the more subtle changes I might find there.
In truth, I was less concerned for Warren than I was worried about myself. There was something different about this trip - no one had died, or been born; there were no weddings, graduations or anniversaries to attend; it was to be a visit without a theme, other than to return to a place I had once lived to see people I had known all my life yet scarcely knew at all. I wondered if they would know me.
My family is a strange mix. On one side (my mother's) lives a crazy, boisterous, lovable bunch of Italians, with all the problems inherent in most big families, yet with the unfailing good nature to always make the best of things and have a good laugh in the process. On my father's side, only Grandma and Grandpa still live in Warren. It is in their home we always stay, and the moment we pulled into the driveway my fear of returning to Warren disappeared. Everything looked so familiar, just as I remembered it, and I felt suddenly foolish to have thought I had somehow worn out my welcome by staying away so long.
There, in the back of the yellow-brick garage, was all the proof I needed. Piled high atop Grandpa's long workbench and shoved into an uneven collection of homemade shelves lay the most wonderfully familiar assortment of junk: old pipes , screws and bolts, tin cans (made from real tin), motors and those inexplicable pieces of metal and wire that served some useful but long-forgotten purpose. All was just as it had always been, as if someome had painstakingly preserved my fondest childhood memories.
That's how time worked at Grandma's - the house furnished the memories - all you had to do was keep your eyes open.
Change may be inevitable, but at Grandma's house I waged a private battle against progress. In the kitchen, the refrigerator was new, but the old one was still working, relegated to a corner of the breezeway and looking rather hurt at being cast from its rightful spot beneath the cupboards after so many years of devoted service (I made a note to show it the respect it deserved).
I soon discovered other changes in Grandma's kitchen. The old hot and cold handles on the sink, attached backward at birth and never corrected, had been replaced by a modern-looking spigot with a single stem. But Grandma, sensing my loss, assured me that the new faucet also worked in the reverse direction for which it had been designed. I turned on the water and felt relieved. Your grandparents never let you down.
In the morning of our first day in Warren, I explored the living room, the two first-floor bedrooms, the bathroom (new sink), the attic bedroom and finally , with Grandpa's help, the basement. His workroom looked more organized, and a bit tidier than the last time, but Grandpa went out of his way, opening drawers and uncovering boxes, to prove that he had thrown little, if anything, away.
As I walked through the house, searching, I felt a little uneasy, as if I were disturbing things that should be left untouched. A desk, a cabinet, a book on a shelf, all triggered vivid images from past visits. It was an eerie feeling , almost like watching yourself. I wanted to sit down and spend time with each of those memories, but they came and went so quickly I was afraid I wouldn't be able to do them justice.
It is always an interesting contrast, running back and forth between the practical, tranquil simplicity of Grandma's house and the raucous, zany jaunts to the homes of innumerable uncles, aunts and cousins. As usual, there are too many people to visit and not enough time to visit them - yet just enough time to hear all that is sad and troublesome and laughing so hard we all come home with aching throats.
The people, of course, have changed. Everyone is older, and age has brought complications no one cares to think about. I suppose I wanted my grandparents to be frozen in time - always older, but not too old, slower-paced, but not immobile - and for the most part they have heeded my secret request.
Grandpa is a renaissance man in the best sense of that term: at 76, he can fix his car, make his garden grow and cook a dandy breakfast, all with his hat on. And Grandma is as every Grandma should be. She looks much younger than her 70 years, always ready to listen, ever watchful over Grandpa (and everyone else) and more open-minded than many people half her age.
It wasn't until we left that I realized the experience of this visit would never be repeated - the changes I had witnessed, and those I had been a part of - were even now different, replaced by new joys and new problems. There was no going back, but the trip was well worth it. I love the treasure that is my family, and will never forget that week in the spring when it felt good to be in Warren, Ohio, just as it was, and everything else in the world seemed a little easier to take.