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Rediscovering its magic on an island in the English Channel
The taxi driver said he knew where it was. Not the exact house but he knew the street. It was only a few blocks from the center of town and not far from the ferry docks.
As he drove my wife and I along the narrow roads of Ryde on the Isle of Wight, I could see the sign on the stone wall where the street began. Buckingham Road, it read. I knew that spot. I have a photo from 1978 of my mother standing before that same sign.
“This is it,” I said.
We began counting the house numbers. Unlike the U.S., they do not run even/odd depending on the side of the street. Here they are sequential—1,2,3—and so on, straight down the line.
Four, 5, 6…
“There’s no house number,” I said as the taxi driver pulled his vehicle to the side of the road.
“Well, there’s 6 and there’s 8,” the driver said, pointing, “so, this has to be 7.”
7 Buckingham Road.
The boyhood home of my grandfather. Brick and stone. Guessing it has had plenty of work done on it. Might even be a rebuild to some extent. But this was the spot, this is where a branch of my modern-day family began to form. A home on the Isle of Wight. My mother had been here years ago with nothing but a good map and an address, handwritten on notepaper. But she came, convinced she would find it, despite the bombings during WWII and the many years that had passed. And she did, and I did, too, just to stand before it, take a photo, and consider the past.
Homes represent so much. Childhood memories—good and bad. They link us to children and grandparents and friends, even the pets of our past. Holidays, birthdays, births, and deaths. And although sometimes we only know their addresses, searching them out and standing on nearby ground can be a magical experience, a soulful connection to our DNA and ourselves.
I had come thousands of miles to find this house and stand in front for only a minute or two. It was worth it. Home, however we see it or however it manifests, is a powerful concept.
A few years ago, my memoir-in-essays, The Consequence of Stars was released. Now, this fall, a new revised edition will be published. A new introduction and two new essays are included. I wanted to revisit his book because I wanted to see if what I had written, some of it more than a decade ago, still held up.
It seems the concept of home remains.
Below is portion of one of the essays in the soon-to-be-published revised edition. It’s about my father and mother, their early lives, and their hometown, which is also my own. It appeared Norman Berner and Gloria Warren were dreamers from the very start.
From: “The Street Where You Live” in The Consequence of Stars (revised edition)
This is how it was when Norman and Gloria were young. They lived among the rust and grit of a city cloaked in the haze of iron ore, where nearly everyone worked for industrialists named Mellon and Carnegie and Phipps and came home at the end of the day to tidy homes and cold beer. Hard work sur- rounded them. Pride was the city’s foundation. It was a tough town. No one backed down from anything. You did what was right. You did your job. You went to church. You helped your neighborhood. You defended principles, your family, and your home. Life was a Norman Rockwell painting in many ways. The narratives of those feel-good 1940s films were built from the realities of neighborhoods like this one. Steel built the city, and it built the people. Norman and Gloria would never work a day in a mill, but they were as strong and sturdy and true as the heavy beams that rolled out from the big plants by the rivers.
But Pittsburgh was not only a mill town, it was a city in the woods, nestled in Pennsylvania’s lower left-hand corner, wrapped inside leafy hills and muddy rivers, the kind of land.
French and British explorers had found promising for trapping and timber, land they had stolen from Native Americans who had lived there as hunters and gatherers for centuries. That history was all around Norman and Gloria, but they were less like the frontiersmen who occupied the land or the laborers who worked for steel barons, and more like the Shawnee, the natives of Southwest Pennsylvania who lived by the rising and setting of the seasonal sun. Norman and Gloria, like those original Americans, lived in the quadrants of the day—morning, noon, afternoon, and night—often outside, often with their tribe of friends. Despite growing up in a neighborhood that sat only seven miles from the nearest steel mill, my parents in their young lives drew in the ancient air of another time. They lived with less steel and more earth and sky. It came naturally, like how they had found each other, without structure or intent. There were consequences to living in a city like Pittsburgh, the hard realities of a mill town. People tended to default to the patterns of fathers and mothers before them—live on the same streets, go to the same bakers, butchers, and churches. But in the sky above them were millions of stars, and one could wish upon them every night, giving Norman and Gloria a license to dream. He wanted to be an artist. She wanted to write books. In a steel town, however, dreaming was an impractical enterprise.
The Consequence of Stars: A memoir of home (Revised edition) is due out in the fall of 2023.