The trees in the yard had grown so big, while the slide on the playground looked so small. The walk to the elementary school seemed far less adventuresome, though the same sidewalk cracks were achingly familiar.
I looked for the little dark-haired girl who used to climb those trees, slip down that slide, and take care not to step on the cracks on the path to school, and found her in me, packed away like the contents of a heart locket at the bottom of a hope chest.
Whenever I visit my childhood home, I feel a little shaken by how permanent it all once seemed, yet how transient it all is. Anyone who’s gone back to the place where they lived as a child — and apparently that’s a lot of us — knows what I’m talking about.
“I conservatively estimate that one in three American adults over the age of 30 have taken such a trip,” said psychologist Jerry Burger, author of “Returning Home: Reconnecting with Our Childhoods.”
Burger, a recently retired psychology professor from Santa Clara University, became interested in the attachments we form to our early homes when, in his late thirties, he felt compelled to go back and look at the landscape of his childhood. “I wanted to look at my home, my school, where I played little league, where I took swim lessons,” he told me over the phone last week. So he went.
The journey was an emotional one, and he wondered, “Am I the only one who feels this way?”
No! I could have told him that. And his research began.
Burger interviewed hundreds of people who’d made the sentimental journey before writing “Returning Home,” which came out in 2011, and again a year ago in paperback. “The desire to go back to your childhood home is a really common phenomenon,” said Burger.
For most people their childhood home is where they lived between the ages of five and 12. “That’s when the biggest emotional ties occur, though, if you spend enough time in any home, you become attached emotionally.”
Phew! Apparently, getting attached to a house — or several — is not a sign of mental illness, Burger reassured me.
The psychological connection is not just to the house, he added, but also to the place: the schools, the church, the stores, the friends’ houses, the hiding places, the whole landscape.
“Where you grew up forms part of the core of your identity. All that happens there becomes an extension of yourself and answers in part the question: Who are you?” he said.
In his research, Burger found that while most people feel this attachment, about one third don’t.
“What’s wrong with them?” I, the impartial scientist, asked.
“I looked for a personality defect in this group,” he said, “but I didn’t find one. They just didn’t latch on in the same way. But the other two thirds definitely get it.”
He also found no gender divides. Men were just as attached to their early homes as women, though women were more likely to cry when they talk about them.
Folks feel the need to visit their early homes for different reasons, he said. Some want to remember a happy childhood, others to make peace with a difficult one. Although the trips stir up mixed emotions regardless, 83 percent would do it again.
“As memories fade with age and time, we don’t feel as connected to that kid we were in the picture. Going back home helps us reconnect with our childhood, which is usually comforting.”
Translated from psych talk: Your first home is where your story begins. Check it out. Here’s how:
Ask what’s driving you
Although many can’t explain why they want to visit their childhood home, and feel driven only by a vague feeling, try to articulate what you hope to gain from the trip before you go, said Burger. Ask what would make it a success for you, and aim for that.
Consider bringing a friend
Slightly more than half of those interviewed took someone with them, usually a family member or romantic partner. “Revealing your childhood home to another person is a powerful way to share yourself,” he said.
Make a list of places to visit: your house, church, school, friends’ houses, playgrounds, parks, neighborhood stores, hiding places and hang-outs. Also stop by places of accomplishment and firsts — where you achieved a sports victory, performed on stage, went on your first date, first learned to drive.
Get a map
Don’t rely solely on your memory map. Real maps and mental maps differ. “Cognitive maps (those in our heads) are full of gaps and are often inaccurate,” said Burger. Google maps allows you to view photos of buildings to make sure the places you’re looking for still exist.
As powerful as the visit may seem, memories fade. Writing down your experiences will help you chronicle them for the future, as will taking photos and bringing back a physical reminder like a piece of brick or tree bark.
Don’t expect too much
Though for some, the visits proved profoundly emotional, and occasionally even marked a turning point in their lives, most found the experience to be simply pleasant. Expect the latter.Knock on the door
Burger was surprised by how many of those he interviewed knocked on the doors of their childhood homes and asked to come in. Even more surprising was that not one who knocked was refused entrance. “So my advice is to give it a try.”