Reading about the history of Niagara Falls, NY tends to make me feel a bit home sick. I’ve lived in a lot of places in my life but for some reason my heart maintains an attachment to the place where I was born and spent the first 16 years of my life. It has been over 33 years since I last took up residence there. My Mom tends to refer to it as “back home.” It’s not that it is a fancy place or anything. In fact, it has gone downhill and a lot of people will testify that the town has become quite a pit. The city has spent the last 20+ years trying to revitalize to no avail. My old house in Youngstown, NY underwent renovation by the new owners a couple of years ago. The only problem was that the person did not obtain a building permit and it ended up staying in the pre-renovation “tear it up before I fix it up” state. Now the weeds have taken over. It is a sad sight as I remember what pride my stepfather had in keeping a well-manicured lawn aboard his riding lawn mower. I remember the hard work that went into building a 2-bedroom addition on the side of the house and the joy we had over vacuuming the bright orange shag carpeting in the living room.
The move South
I experienced many horrible winters in the suburbs of Niagara. The Blizzard of 77 is the mother of all winters in my memory. I recently came across a photo published online and it confirmed that my memory was not exaggerating. Sometimes I think that it was a major incentive for my parents to move South in April 1979. I remember that move well and was quite excited for the new adventure. We travelled to our new place literally shedding our boots and coats along the way. We arrived under a Carolina blue sky. With green vegetation everywhere, the road trip down through the Eastern Seaboard allowed us to see the evolution of a blooming spring flower—from Niagara barren frozen ground, to green grass, to buds, and then a full flower in North Carolina. In a few months I was to experience real humidity and Japanese beetles. I was to have my first barbecue and Brunswick stew.
I remember eating dinner at my maternal grandparents the night before we left. I really don’t remember the contents of the meal. But it would be the last time. As we pulled out of that old familiar driveway, I heard my stepfather say, “Take a good look, it may be a while before we return.” I had spent so many meals of my childhood at that table which had gained a reputation for hosting burned pancakes for breakfast and some sort of jarred Ragu with spaghetti for dinner. No matter what was on the menu, I always felt loved and secure there. For years I would try to remember the items in my grandparents’ home, like an exercise of counting sheep before I went to sleep. It was not an easy task as they both tended to be hoarders of sorts. My Salvatore Grandparents both died in 1988. I have many relatives who still live there. Each visit brings back fond memories.
I wonder if my great grandparents experienced the same kind of nostalgia as they remembered the lands from which they immigrated. I don’t think that my great grandmother Teresa was ever able to return to her native Italy. From what I understand, in those days people fled due to hunger in search of a new life and opportunity. I left the cold climate in Niagara in search of good weather and perhaps an exciting future. Eventually opportunities in life would lead me to experience the some more cold weather in Chicago. It is interesting how life tends to make a full circle. My own Dad lived many years in Arizona and recently returned to Niagara.
We are all exiles
What makes me think about “back home” was in today’s (Sunday) Old Testament reading where the Israelites were led into captivity away from their native land to Babylon. A line in psalm 137 reads, “By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” They were exiled in a foreign land. And they could never forget the land from where they came. In the same way, life on this earth is like a journey toward heaven for those who desire to know and follow God. Those who try to follow His Commandments can feel like foreigners in the midst of a secular culture.
The spiritual journey brought to my mind mental images of Jesus along the Via Dolorosa, the street where He lugged His heavy Cross on the way to His crucifixion. Via Dolorosa literally means “way of suffering.” Clearly it is the way of those exiled on this earth. Today’s Gospel (John 3:14-21) contains an up-lifting promise:
Jesus said to Nicodemus: Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so much the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.
The reference is to the book of Numbers where God had once commanded Moses to elevate a brass serpent on a pole in the desert after the Israelites were complaining about being exiled in the wilderness. After this, if any of the Israelites were bitten by a snake, they were immediately healed by looking up at this serpent on a pole. A fascinating account, as it foreshadowed Jesus on the Cross and the antidote for those in need of spiritual healing.
Perhaps there are some of you out there who sometimes get homesick. Home sick is not always a place but can also be all of those special persons and memories associated with it. It can also be a spiritual longing.