The door never shuts on a childhood home

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When the narrator of Margaret Atwood's new novel, "The Blind Assassin," revisits her childhood home as a young woman, she experiences a strange detachment.

As she explains, "I stood outside my house, my former house, waiting to have an emotion of any kind at all. None came." Then she adds, "I am not sure which is worse: intense feeling, or the absence of it."

In an age of mobility, houses come and go. Just check the jumble of crossed-out listings in any address book. But for many people a first house, like a first love, forever occupies a special place in the heart. An absence of emotions? Hardly.

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A childhood home is, after all, a place where memories remain deeply imbedded. Here is the nursery where a newborn first slept. The dining room where three generations regularly gathered for Thanksgiving dinner. The living room where countless Christmas trees glowed brightly in the corner. The sidewalk where children played hopscotch and learned to ride bikes.

In time, most childhood homes become someone else's address, a place for a new family to stamp its imprint and create its own memories. For our family, that transition is beginning.

In a month or two, my father will leave the house in the Midwest that was my first home and will move to Boston to be with us. Sometime in the next week, a "For Sale" sign will go up on the lawn of the white two-story house that my grandparents built. Strangers will begin walking through the rooms, peering into closets, and traipsing from top to bottom, always with the question: Could this be our house?

Soon one family will answer "Yes" and move in. Perhaps a new generation of children will grow up here, forming their own distinct memories of childhood on this peaceful tree-lined street.

Long before young children ever know the word "architecture," their definition of "house" is being quietly shaped by the style of their own family's residence. Growing up in a Colonial in New England, with an attic and a basement and maple trees in front, creates a different image of home than living in a ranch-style house with no basement in California, surrounded by palm trees, or growing up in a city apartment, an elevator ride away from the street and a walk away from the nearest playground.

The location of a childhood home also shapes first impressions of what a neighborhood is - its sense of space, or lack of it, its feeling of community, or lack of it.

Recently, as I scrolled through Web sites showing real estate listings in my father's city, a familiar address appeared. The house where a childhood friend lived is for sale. Looking at color photos of the interior and exterior, I was suddenly transported back to that street, to that house, an elementary-school student playing with my friend after school.

I sent her an e-mail about the listing. Although the decor is more contemporary now, some things haven't changed since her parents moved decades ago. Just seeing the fireplace, she says, "brought back memories of sitting there on the couch with my folks, eating popcorn in front of the fire. That was also the fireplace I realized Santa could not have come down carrying my two-wheeler."

Pare down, pack up, move on. It is the American way. For every family on the move, a change of address marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of another, with new adventures ahead.

Thomas Wolfe argued, "You can't go home again." Maybe not. But in another, more comforting sense, it can also be argued that you never really leave.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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