When you come from a big family, like I do, you need to figure out how to stand out in a crowd. Growing up, I found this a challenge; the 10 of us Hertzel kids were more alike than different — argumentative, curly-headed, bookish and fierce. At No. 7, I was buried deep in the crowd, neither oldest nor youngest.
A few modest attributes distinguished me: I was shy to the point of whispering. I wore glasses. I collected empty boxes, which I hid under my bed, a fire hazard. And I was born in Louisville, Ky.
Most of my siblings were born in Illinois, where my father had taught English for years, or in Missouri, where my grandparents lived. I alone was the Kentucky Oddball. We lived there only briefly and I was still a toddler when we left, but all my life I clung to Louisville as Mine, as Exotic, as A Thing That Set Me Apart.
I memorized the address of our house: 100 Southwestern Parkway. I learned the name of the hospital where I was born: St. Joseph’s Infirmary. I knew about Shawnee Park, the big green space down the street, and Fontaine Ferry, the amusement park that burned down, and Bernheim Forest, the place south of town where we picnicked. During the Kentucky Derby, which we all watched together, every year, I misted up at “My Old Kentucky Home” and sang along lustily, with meaning.
It had always been my intent to go back, but years passed and my trips took me in other directions: California, the North Shore, Montreal, Ireland. This spring, 50 years after leaving, I returned. My husband and I had friends to visit. The flight was cheap. Someone would care for our dogs. And so, in May, off we went. I remembered nothing about living there, but I hoped for an emotional homecoming.
The old home, just a house
This is Louisville. This is where I was born, I thought, willing myself to feel something as we steered our rental car toward the city. It did not look impressive: a busy road, a Kroger’s and a Shell station, a coffee shop, a bar. It’s early, I thought.
Our friends, John and Sarah, lived on a tree-lined street of big old houses — split-timbered Tudors, small stone castles with turrets and porches, foursquares with circular driveways, presumably for the coach to pull up and allow ladies in hoopskirts to disembark. The neighborhood was beautiful, all quiet winding streets and lush gardens, but it did not speak to me. I figured the resonance would come later, when we found Southwestern Parkway.
Every morning we walked with John and his black Lab through Cherokee Park along green, overgrown trails, past a shallow stream and a bird sanctuary, through dew-wet grass and back home again. It was hot. We took it slow. It did not feel familiar.
On our second day, we strolled through Old Louisville, admiring the century-old mansions. They were mammoth, with beautiful details — gargoyles and mullioned windows, and ivy crawling up weathered brick. Secret gardens, set off by wrought-iron gates, were studded with benches and statuary. One, possibly subversively, had been turned into a community vegetable garden.
We drove past Spalding University, where my father had taught when it was still called Nazareth College. We tried to find St. Joseph’s, but it had been torn down. And then we headed along Southwestern Parkway, looking for number 100.
I recognized it right away — the stone foundation, the seven steps to the porch, the side lights flanking the front door, the straight white porch railings under the straight white banister. This very spot was where my big sister Kristin stood, dressed in white, holding flowers, posing for her first communion pictures. This very spot was where my oldest brother, John Patrick, stood, aiming his camera at my father, who aimed a camera right back at him.
But I knew this only from pictures. I had no memories. Try as I might, I felt nothing. The house did not leave me cold, exactly, but it gave nothing back. It was just a house.
I walked around the back, but I was afraid of trespassing and took only a quick peek. The yard was long and narrow. I glimpsed a sleeping porch, a tree, the spot where we had once had a swing set.
That glance felt like a pause — the house, the porch, the tree, the yard, the sunlight, all waiting for seven young children to rush out the back door, onto the grass. But there was no movement, no sound. No one was there. We, certainly, were not there and I couldn’t swear that we ever had been.
I climbed the front steps, rang the bell. While I waited, I aimed every nerve toward that house. I was once here, I thought. I toddled right out that door, onto this porch, wearing small red tennis shoes.
I conjured up the old photos in my brain, scrolled through my phone for the few I had downloaded, but I felt nothing. No one came to the door, and I was not bold enough to peer through the windows. I walked back to the rental car, where my husband and friend waited.
Doug looked nonplused; I thought you’d be more. … His voice trailed off. Emotional? I said. I shrugged. I don’t remember anything.
Best part: time with friends
What does it mean to be from somewhere? What makes a place speak to you? I remembered the first time my parents went to China. My father had spent years studying Mandarin, first in the Army, and later with his students at the University of Wisconsin. I was in high school when they finally made it to Beijing. “When I got off the plane, I felt like I’d come home,” my father told me, and I never forgot that instant and intense connection he felt for a place he had never been.
I felt something similar the first time I went to Ireland. My grandmother was Irish, her people from County Kerry and the Midlands, and I had been drawn to that country even as a child. I remember poring over the Time-Life history of Ireland, which I got for Christmas when I was 10, and I remember flying into Shannon in 1989, looking down at all those patches of green and feeling a great contentment roll over me, as though broken parts were now fitted back together.
I had expected to feel something similar in Kentucky. I had wanted to feel something similar in Louisville, this place I had bragged about and claimed. But I didn’t. I liked it there; we had a great time; we ate good food and hiked at Bernheim Forest (which did not resonate), we poked around in museums and went to a Louisville Bats minor league baseball game and stood above the slow-moving Ohio River and looked across at Indiana. And, best of all, we spent time with friends.
But it was not my home. It was just a way-station in my life, the place where my mother happened to be pregnant, and where I happened to come kicking and screaming into the world precisely one month early, took my first breath, my first steps, and then — with the rest of the Hertzels — moved on.