By Tim Hayes

We had reason to visit Manhattan recently, and decided to make the six-hour drive instead of flying.  On the return trip, after crossing the state line from New Jersey into Pennsylvania, a thought seized my brain.

“Why don’t we take one of the Allentown exits and see the old house?” I thought to myself.  Just as quickly, though, the idea evaporated.  We did get off the highway in Allentown for gas and a bit of a breather, but I intentionally took an exit far from where he had lived more than two decades earlier, just to make it harder to get to the old residence.

Why?  Because I’ve learned the hard way over the years that the memory of a cherished place most often beats actually returning to it.  The old saying, “It’s the thought that counts,” goes double for locations that hold a special place in one’s heart.

I’ve made the mistake of driving past the South Hills of Pittsburgh house I grew up in a handful of times, and it invariably becomes a sad experience.  The old place looks pretty beat up, along with the rest of the neighborhood.  The joie de vivre that permeated that little block of homes, stacked nearly on top of each other, with neighbors who knew and looked out for one another?  It may be still there, who knows?  But it sure doesn’t feel like it to me.

My old grade school?  Gone.  The vibrant parish church where I grew up, received the sacraments, attended Mass every week with my family?  Closed by the diocese years ago and locked up tight.  Even my beloved college alma mater has changed – and in a positive way, with all new dorms and some new classroom buildings – yet, that necessary progress leaves me having to think hard to remember what had been there before.  The places around campus where so much of my maturation (such as it is) took root?  Removed and replaced.  Sad, sad, sad.

The famous author C.S. Lewis put it this way: “These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.”

In other words, looking in the rear view mirror can be okay.  But don’t turn the car around and try to go back to that special place, because it won’t work the same magic in quite the same way again.  Savor the memory.  Forget trying to relive or replicate it.  You’re setting yourself up for a disappointment.

So, as we watched the skyline of Allentown zoom past our windshield, the memories we accumulated there started to dominate our conversation.  The good friends we made.  The collection of charming, talented, funny, and even oddball characters we each worked alongside.  The purchase of our first home.  The addition of our first dog.  The happy times and the valleys of difficulty.  And, most of all, the joy and lack of sleep that came with the birth of our first child.

We made the right decision not to veer off the road and physically drive to a series of nostalgic reference points.  Some of them were bound to look different, perhaps worse for the wear, and not preserved in the pristine condition in which they exist in our heads.

Maybe it’s wishful thinking.  Could even be delusional, to some degree.  But the places and people experienced along the journey all contribute to the makeup of each person.  The way they’re remembered and savored and celebrated in the mind’s eye remains the best running record kept.

Copyright 2013 Tim Hayes Consulting