Who says you can’t go home?

Orlando Sentinel - - COMING SUNDAY - Marni Jameson

An ex­pert shares ad­vice about how to visit your child­hood home.

The trees in the yard had grown so big, while the slide in 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” (Row­man & Lit­tle­field).

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 5 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 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 hang­outs. 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.

■ Take notes. 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.”

Con­trary to what writer Thomas Wolfe says, you not only can go home again, but also, says psy­chol­o­gist Jerry Burger, you should.

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