I’ve always heard, and known it to be true myself, that coming home from a new place or experience can be disorienting. You notice that your house smells as it always does at Christmas — like your mother’s cooking and pine — that your golden retriever’s eyes still light up at the sight of your younger brother walking through the door, that indeed everything does seem the same, only it doesn’t feel that way.
Not surprisingly, the same thing can happen, I’ve realized, when you return to places from your childhood. For me, there are two institutions in particular in our community that have remained seemingly—thankfully—unchanged over the years, where I was able to play when I was a kid, and where I have been able to come back to as an adult: the East Windsor Bowl on Route 130, and ProSkate Ice Arena on Route 1.
What these places meant to me then and what they mean to me now are different, of course, and I’ve recently had to reconcile the memories and emotions of back then with who I am now, confronted by the realization of how much I’ve changed, and, more piercing still, how much the people I love have, too.
East Windsor Bowl
Then: My dad used to take me and my siblings bowling on rainy weekends. While we were hell bent on beating one another, I remember that my dad’s eyes would light up when we bowled, that he was always the best one out of all of us. It wasn’t just that he’s naturally athletic; bowling was a big staple in my dad’s hometown, and he played competitively through high school.
He could spin the ball and make splits and spares. When he took us bowling, we got all the bells and whistles: bumpers, pizza, arcade tokens, stickers — all the things that made us happy. In fact, we were probably lured to the bowling alley by these things in the first place, but for my dad, I think, it was about something more: those Saturdays were a tether of his own to his childhood.
But by the time I was old enough to realize, it seemed, that, between SAT prep, my brother’s ever-lengthening practices, and my leaving for high school, then college, rainy weekends became harder to come by if at all.
Now: I was at home this past summer finishing up some research requirements for my graduate thesis, and I planned to be here through the winter to save rent money after receiving my degree; I needed a home base as I filled out applications for more school and potential jobs, not to mention a breather as I figure out the right next step.
I now have a weekend waitressing gig and a masters in comparative political economy, and my dad and I bowl every Wednesday night in East Windsor’s mixed bowling league. We thought we’d take advantage of my time at home by spending three hours together each week, making up one half of the Thunder Alley team.
I have lived outside of the U.S. for years, and on different coasts of this country, and I can say with confidence that there’s no place quite like East Windsor Bowl on league night. People there are of all ages and abilities, from different academic and professional backgrounds, races and religions.
Our own teammates are Edwin and Trip, a 70-year-old retiree with a wicked spin and a 19-year-old community college student, respectively. Every week we high-five each other and strategize to beat our opponents as if we were old friends.
I’ve been welcomed and encouraged by most everyone in the league, and this is perhaps the truest testament to how wonderful these people are, because when we started, I was doggone terrible.
What I love most, though, is that I get to bowl with my dad. I see now how happy bowling makes him, how enthusiastically he offers tips and tricks. I really look forward to Wednesday nights, much more than I ever expected.
Every week, I’ll catch a glimpse of the arcade, which has lost its pull on me by now. But still I think of us jumping up and down, watching my tall and strong father dunk basketballs into the crisp net with ease. If I close my eyes, the sounds of the pins going down remind me of when my only care in the world was beating my siblings, not other candidates.
My dad has gray in his hair, and his knees aren’t what they used to be. When we wait our turn to play, we talk politics and my career, not pizza toppings and princess stickers.
I don’t know that I’ll be able to bowl with him every Wednesday once I’m working or in school again. I realize that this period, as my childhood was, is finite. I just hope I’ll still be able to come to East Windsor Bowl many years from now, and remember bowling with my father.
ProSkate Ice Arena
Then: I started playing ice hockey in eighth grade. I was neither particularly passionate nor talented at the sport, but this was around the time when I became the target of my middle school’s mean-girl bullies. Instead of explaining to my parents my lack of weekend plans, I begged them to take me ice-skating every Saturday night, “to practice.”
My little brother, William, only seven at the time, was all too happy to join, no questions asked. We had the rink to ourselves in the off-season for the disco ice-skating public hours from 8 to 10pm. After dancing and racing on the ice, we ate fresh and delicious chicken fingers and fries.
Now: I stopped playing hockey, but the two of us never stopped skating. Will started college this past fall and was home for his winter break when one night we decided to go disco ice-skating. Over the years, my skates got lost somewhere in the house, so I had to rent skates.
I knew when I got on the ice that the rentals weren’t sharp enough, I had to be careful and skate slowly. But I was caught up in the music and smells that took me back to much simpler times, when Will’s small hand fit in mine and I was his hero whom he literally looked up to. I was going too fast when my skate slipped and I went flying.
Will helped me up, took my hand, and carried me off the ice. I was fine, bruised, but teary-eyed nevertheless; I heard Will’s soothing voice, a young man now. I thought back to when my brother made a sad time in my life a whole lot better.
William, then wide-eyed and bursting with energy, was just happy to keep me company. He was my best and only friend back then. Now he has a serious girlfriend and friends and teammates who rely on him. My little brother is not so little anymore, someday he’ll be a caring husband, a wonderful father. But I’ve always felt so protective of him.
I remember when he’d greet the day coming down the stairs carried by my mother, who would piggyback him from his bed to the kitchen table, and say in a booming voice, “Look who I found!” She carried him down like that every day, until one morning, and no one can remember when, she couldn’t.
He was too big, too tall to climb on her back like that, no longer the “baby” of the family. But I still thought of him that way, even through his high school graduation.
I held my breath during his lacrosse games when he got hit by boys twice my size, and I wanted to spare him from the pain of his first broken heart. He hasn’t been a baby for a long time, and, as he was pulling me off the ice just a few weeks ago, telling me it was going to be okay, for the first time ever, I knew it, too.
As a student of international politics, I am all too aware of the increasingly high-stakes, fast-paced nature of our world, of the pulsing, seemingly impossible-to-ignore urgencies of school and work.
But if I have learned anything in the past six months, I would give this advice—whether you’re in college and home on break, or, like me, 24 and figuring things out from your childhood bedroom, whether you’re a parent, or a child:
There is always time to spend with the people you love. Go home for Christmas, and go home when it’s not Christmas. Take your father bowling, and your little brother ice-skating. Visit the places you used to love with the people you still do, while the places are still there, while the people are.
I think you’d be surprised to know just how much you might learn about yourself and the people you love, about the community, institutions, and family who helped raise you–the biggest supporters of your dreams no matter how far they take you, and the first to welcome you home. In fact, I think you’ll be surprised to learn that though at times it may feel different, you’ll soon realize that some things really never do change after all.