My family left Texas the summer I turned 14. My dad had died of leukemia the year before, so my mom moved us north to Pennsylvania, to be near relatives. I left behind everything I knew, including my best friend, the one who always saved me a seat on the bus, shared my short-lived passion for The Association's Greatest Hits! and who listened for hours as I processed my beloved father's death. Her name was Cindy Knapp.
Last fall, in Dallas on business, I decided to test Thomas Wolfe's idea that "you can't go home again."
My old neighborhood looked strangely the same on that sunny October day, though our neighbors had long since moved away. I knocked on the front door of my old house; nobody answered. But standing on that porch, I was 13 again, drinking Cokes and munching saltines with Cindy. On a lark, I drove to her house. And there on her mailbox, faded but clear, was the name "G KNAPP."
Cindy's dad was Gregory Knapp; I remembered him as a very tall, dark-haired, intimidating man. I rang the doorbell. A very tall, white-haired man appeared. "Hi, Mr. Knapp," I said. "I'm Nancy Perry. You probably don't remember me, but Cindy and I were best friends."
Mr. Knapp remembered. He invited me in. The house hadn't changed — at all. " My kids tease me about it," he said, laughing. I found it comforting. The only difference was the pictures on the wall. Cindy was now Cindy Upton, a retired Realtor with three grown kids. We called her cell and left a message. I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone.
Mr. Knapp is now 80, robust despite Parkinson's disease, and wry as ever. With Mrs. Knapp in a retirement apartment, he meets weekly with his old tennis buddies at McDonald's, where they debate the "end of Norman Rockwell's America."
By the time I arrived back in D.C., an e-mail was waiting from Cindy — we're now Facebook pals — with "Old Friends" in the subject line. It began: "Nancy Jean Mary Perry (Graham), of course I remember you!! I remember putting my nitegown in my jeans and climbing out the window and visiting you in the middle of the nite; didn't we roam the golf course? I remember putting on all the plays and having so much fun together and we both wanted to be Scarlett O'Hara; I remember going to your piano recital and you were so nervous and your dad told us the joke about the man who would bang his head against the wall and when someone asked him why, he said, ' because it feels so good when I stop!' "
And with that, a cherished part of my childhood I'd long forgotten came rushing back. You really can go home again.
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