Union Station was congested with trains when I finally returned to Chicago for good. In many ways, the three years I had been away seemed like a lifetime. What would things be like, I wondered…the way I remembered them or changed somehow? When I entered the concourse, I saw how brightly the sun was flooding the area with late morning light. In this, at least, nothing had changed while I was away.
It was a weekday, and crowds of people hurried back and forth or sat on benches, waiting expectantly for trains to take them to other places. Many were restless like me with a brimming eagerness to get home. Some had a long time to wait and a long way to go. For me it was simple; I could take the subway.
Leaving the station and walking toward State Street, I initially felt trapped by the sheer upward sweep of the buildings that towered above me. I hadn’t remembered their threatening height. But the continuous stream of traffic I did remember, and the moving masses of people and the many stores. Even more I remembered the neon signs of the bars, silently inviting people to enter and enjoy themselves. They looked like nothing I had seen in a long time…so American. I wanted to go in, order a beer and enjoy my new freedom. But eager to get home, I continued toward the subway. For a moment, I thought I felt the city’s welcoming embrace.
It was almost noon when I reached my parent’s apartment. Not knowing the exact time of my arrival, my mother later told me she had just sat, waiting nervously all morning for the doorbell to ring. When I finally arrived, and she opened the door and saw me standing there, holding my suitcase, she burst into tears and shook uncontrollably. Then she hugged and kissed me, repeatedly, as if I were a delinquent child who had returned after running away. I just let her hold me and cry. And I cried with her. I couldn’t help it.
My father wasn’t there to greet me. My mother said he was working on a special project at the plant and would be home as soon as he could. I wondered what he would do when he saw me for the first time. Would he still refrain from displaying affection?
From the moment my mother stopped crying, she talked continuously. Mostly, she asked questions without waiting for answers. Where exactly were you? How long were you there? What was it like? Did you get enough to eat, enough rest…that sort of thing.
She wanted to know everything. I was glad she cared, but there were things I didn’t want to talk about. To tell them was to relive them, and all I wanted to do was forget and get on with my life. At first, to avoid saying much, I lied and simply said, “It really wasn’t too bad.”
Even while she made lunch and the best coffee I’d tasted in years, she asked questions. “Have you lost weight?”
“You look thinner.”
“Maybe that’s because you’re taller. How much did you grow?”
“I have no idea.”
When she asked other questions, I started telling her I didn’t remember or didn’t know. Finally, when she continued, I got angry and told her to stop asking so many questions. Then I turned and looked away.
Her silence told me she was hurt. During the pause my anger subsided and I said I was sorry. Her returning smile told me she understood.
Then she went on to tell me about life at home (much of which she had previously written in letters) and about my brother and sister. I knew both had married and had children. I thanked her for encouraging them not to see me the first day I was back.
As she continued and I only half-listened, my eyes searched the living room and everything in it for memories. It seemed smaller and there appeared to be less furniture than I remembered. The front windows and the radiator beneath them also seemed to have shrunk. Looking through aging lace curtains, now more yellow than white, I could see the houses across the street. They appeared closer as if the space between them had diminished. Only the trees were larger and taller, reminding me that an irreplaceable block of time had passed while I was away. Sunlight trickling through dancing leaves animated the room.
My father was smiling when he came home to dinner and apologized for not arriving sooner. He was smaller than I remembered…smaller now, in fact, than me. He didn’t seem to notice the difference, however, and quickly grabbed my hand firmly and shook it. Looking into his eyes, I could see by his expression he was glad I had returned home safely. The few seconds we looked at each other reassured me of his affection.
Being exhausted from the long hours of travel, I went to bed immediately after dinner. My bedroom was warm and snug like I remembered it, and the sheets were white and smelled wonderfully fresh. So did my pillow, and it was smooth and soft beneath my head. My mother had fluffed the blanket, and it felt light and warm as I slowly drifted into sleep. She also had opened the window a little as she had done when I was growing up. From time to time muffled sounds of the city crept in: of people talking, cars passing and factories humming a few blocks to the west.
Each sound, rising, as it were, from my past was familiar yet, at the same time, oddly strange…like memory fragments retrieved from another life incompletely shed. Partly listening without fully comprehending, I began to shiver as I waited for the air, I had so recently known, to turn cold and the ground beneath me to become hard and jagged with stones. Then, I found myself waiting nervously for frightening sounds to come: the intermittent explosions of enemy mortar and artillery shells, the rapid burps of machine guns and the sporadic cracks of rifles firing at specters in the dark.
In my half-awake state, I didn’t know which group of sounds was real: those friendly murmurs from the city or those terrifying outbursts on the battlefield. The clean smell of the sheets, the softness of the pillow and the comfort of the warm blanket only half-assured me I wasn’t back at the front…dreaming of home.