Visiting Ghosts

We’re not big on long vacations. We haven’t flown as a family in 10 years, and since that time our longest vacation was probably a four or five day weekend. Our heart is at home, and that’s where we are happiest as a family. Vacations for us are a few days in the mountains, or a few days on the beach, or a few days at Disney.

But my eldest daughter will be 16 this year. A rising sophomore. One day it hit me the way mortality hits you when you first go on heart medication: I had three more summers left with her in the home. Three more chances as a complete family for those bigger vacations we always said we would do “sometime”. Now I’m not talking the standard fare like Caribbean cruises or trips to Hawaii. I’m talking about the stuff I want to share with my kids that will hurt if I never embrace the opportunity. I’m talking about showing them where I grew up, showing them where we got married. I realized how important it was to me to share parts of ourselves, Cheryl and I that is, with our kids. Those parts of ourselves they’ve only known through anecdotes and yellowing pictures.

So the Ludlams descended on Boston. It was easily our best vacation ever.

Boston is core to our marriage and to who we are as individuals. Cheryl and I met at Boston University – she an undergraduate and I a graduate student in the same physics lab. Eventually we were married there (in Boston, not in the physics lab…) and gave the town eight years of our lives. Formative years, as you can imagine, the bulk of our 20s. Going back now, after 20 years away, was not only an irreplaceable opportunity to share our past – and the genesis of our family – with our kids, but it was a tremendous experience of reflection and introspection.

Of course our kids had a wonderful time, and as a family we shared the most wonderful of experiences, but right now I just want to share three emotions that hit me hardest on our trip.

The first was regret.

For various reasons our first stop in Boston was at the public library in Copley Square. It is an architectural wonder, a true monument that easily could have been a cathedral. We could have spent the day there. As I walked those halls I wondered to myself why, in all those eight years living in Boston, I had visited that library only once. I had similar feelings as we toured the historic and beautiful sights of Boston throughout the week. I saw, with the wisdom that the extra 20 years has given me, that I could have done so much more with my time in Boston. Part of me wished, in fleeting flashes of longing, that I might be a 20-something once again, setting foot in the big city for the first time, with the energy and freedom to drink in every experience. Of course, I know when I was there I was drinking in experiences as rapidly as I might. I was studying for a Ph.D. I was traveling to Europe. I was falling in love and getting married. Nothing to regret there. Nothing I would want to change. But still, you can’t help but feel when immersing yourself in your own past, that if you had to do it all over again you could do it better.

The second emotion was one that I don’t really have a word for. A heartbreaking joy.

Later that first day we went to the church – Marsh Chapel at Boston University – where we were married. As we stood together before the altar where 21 years ago we said our vows, the tears flowed. I could still grab hold of thin tendrils of memory from that day. I could feel what it was like to watch my bride appear at the back of the church and walk down that aisle, what it was like to take her hands at the altar and then give her our first kiss as a married couple, even what it was like to lay down in the back pew after passing out during the receiving line! It was a joy, because I was so happy to be in the place that started the best part of my life. It was a heartbreaking joy, because I longed to experience that moment again. To re-live it, not to try to improve on it, but just to experience that moment once more.

The third emotion was awe.

I was not in awe of the city, though there is much there that is amazing. I was not in awe of the memories. I was in awe of the human ability to reach across time and connect with events that had happened twenty years before. It was a strange and profound feeling to walk down streets where so much had happened, to walk into rooms where life had been lived. Streets and buildings and rooms that have no connection to my now – other people live and work there, and they will never know me – but that are ghosts of my past, welcoming me for a visit. Before this trip I often felt that I am a different person now than I was in my youth. I have grown in learning and wisdom, as well as in girth. I have worn down in some ways and improved in others. I abide in a new place and have new friends and live a new life. But I was wrong. I am the same person I was then. My past is more than snapshots and anecdotes, fuzzy memories fading like writing on a subway wall. My past is knitted into the fabric of my being. I am now and always will be the grad student in Boston. I am now and always will be the kid in the mountains of Colorado. I am now and always will be the husband and father in South Carolina. All rolled up into one. And the best part about it is that if I embrace that past and reflect on it and truly own it, I can use it to help make my now the best that it can possibly be, for me and my family.

So, yes, it was our best family vacation ever. They say you can’t go back. But you can. You can go back, and you can take your family too.

2 responses to “Visiting Ghosts

  1. This brought me tears … you are a sum of everything you’ve experienced. So wonderful you can share these with the children.

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