Author's Voice--Extended Submissions
Stories featured here are extended versions of select Author's Voice submissions for each respective month.
You CAN Go Home Again…
By Ricki Dorn
“You can’t go home again” is a quote and book title by author Thomas Wolfe, but I say you can; just don’t expect it to look the same. My husband and I recently “went back” to Cleveland, Ohio for my high school reunion. It was my first visit there since my parents left our hometown and moved to Miami right after I graduated from college. I often thought fondly of the place where I spent my life between the ages of 3 and 22, but never felt compelled to “go back.” My sons heard stories of my childhood throughout theirs and I shared many tales of my youth with husband Jeffrey. However, in this year of my 60th high school reunion, I felt time fleeting and that if I were ever to do this, it had to be now.
So I replied to the organizers who had been sending me emails that we would attend, booked our flights, and let my high school bestie Sandy know we would be there. She promptly invited us to stay with her and we happily accepted. For once, I had no expectations or agenda; we were just going to see what the city and my newly renovated high school looked like and to visit my past.
Our outbound flight on Friday morning was uneventful – despite a plane I found way too small – but Cleveland Hopkins (now International) Airport seemed seedy and hokey. In my child’s mind, it had always been shiny, big and exciting when we went to pick up visiting relatives or took an occasional flight ourselves. Now, we actually had to leave the terminal and walk outside on the cement ground to a slanted, steel ladder, which we climbed to enter the plane. No smooth carpeted breezeways like those at MIA.
In major cities I’d visited before, each rental car company had its own full office; Cleveland “boasted” one medium size bay, which we reached by shuttle as usual, but it contained only one slice of counter for each of a dozen companies. Of course, most of the other passengers were renting vehicles from Enterprise, which we had chosen, so the line there was very long. We finally got our car, scoring one upgrade, and after engaging the GPS, we set off to visit my hometown.
Jeff is a good driver and we had a reliable map, but the roads were wiggly and our tenures on each highway seemed too short. We finally reached downtown Cleveland, where I spotted the Tudor Arms Hotel where I had celebrated my confirmation, at 16 years old. That building looked the same – dark stone, handsome and stately, as I recalled it, but someone later that weekend told us it had become a condominium. We caught a glimpse of Severance Hall (home of first-rate concerts). Was that really colorful graffiti on the grand outside wall? For awhile, nothing looked familiar, but then as we began to drive up Cedar Hill (equivalent to perhaps A1A here in Miami), toward the suburbs, I sighted spots I recognized, but often their neighboring shops or stores were wrong – whoops, I mean different.
We finally reached the edge of Cleveland Heights, at which point Lee Road crossed Cedar Hill. There was my now gigantic alma mater – Cleveland Heights High School – the premier public school of my teens. I knew it had been expanded but I wasn’t prepared for the enormity of this structure, still in keeping with the original architectural style of the 1920s with which it had begun, now just huge and new. I noted the pizza place across from the school which we frequented after Friday night football games was absent; some other little nondescript business sat there now.
We quickly proceeded the rest of the way up Cedar Hill to my exact neighborhood and Cedar Center, the small shopping center which backed up onto several streets, of which one was where I had lived.
If I had been dropped by helicopter into the middle of Cedar Center I never would have recognized it; of the four anchors that had been on each corner – Standard Oil Co., Halle’s Department Store, the library, and a big friendly drugstore – only the library remained. This hometown mall had been widened and filled up with Staples, Target, Panera Bread, Payless, a fried chicken place, and other national chains. It could have been Anytown, USA, in 2019. Gone were Corky & Lenny’s Deli (an institution), Davis Bakery (another pillar) and China Gate Restaurant where my dad took our family every Sunday night for dinner. That big, bright, bustling family eatery was now a narrow takeout place whose only connection was the name. Gone were the shoemaker where my mom took our shoes to be repaired, the jewelry store where my teenaged brother used his first paycheck to buy my mother a porcelain candy dish, and the 5 and 10 cent store which actually sold items for 5 and 10 cents.
After a late lunch at Panera Bread, ignoring the sorry little hole in the wall called China Gate, we finally drove around the corner to my street – 3930 Warrendale Road. This was a 12-room house that once sported 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, a den, a patio, a finished recreation room in the basement fully equipped with a ping pong table, TV, juke box and sofa. Some new owners (who knows how many families had inhabited “my house” since 1963?) had screened in the porch which opened out of my bedroom on the second floor. Nice. However, despite two vehicles in the driveway, nobody opened the front or side doors to our knocks and bell ringing.
Another letdown was the size of the house, which had in my child’s eye and all the years afterward of remembering, been very big. That day we went back, despite ample front and back yards, the house seemed to have shrunk to somewhere between small and medium size. Happy to have made the visit anyhow, we then continued on to Sandy’s house, about twenty minutes away in a very nice neighborhood.
Sandy looked, sounded, and acted pretty much as I had remembered her, and in a few minutes we were chatting away as if sixty years had never elapsed since our last meeting. I had brought some snapshots of us all from my high school photo album and those were fun to look at together. Sandy’s husband Shelly Davis, whom I also knew well, had passed away a few years ago; disappointing not to see him. Sandy and Shelly had been married for over fifty years and had three children. Sandy’s new friend, Irving, joined us for temple that night and for the weekend. He was a very pleasant fellow who was game, as Jeff was, to be hearing about Heights High all weekend, not their own alma maters. Sandy’s reform synagogue, Temple Emanu-El, which we attended, was delightful, in a large modern building. Rabbi Steven Denker, a portly, white-bearded, elderly gentleman, was a scholarly, right-to-the-point person, who gave a short but strong sermon. The cantor was young and joyful, smiling as he sang every song, accompanying himself on his guitar, his delight contagious. Since the “pre-neg” (a small refreshment so you shouldn’t have to pray hungry) had been very light, the four of us went out for pizza after services. Pizza on Friday night was another reserved ritual, as after football games, the team and the marching band members indulged in pepperoni specials.
Talk about same and different, the reunion committee had scheduled a tour of the new Heights High for us returning alums on Saturday morning. The event began with us all gathered in a small auditorium, hearing about the new work the CHHS Foundation was doing for the school and the community. There were several families whose grandparents, parents, and children were all Heights High Tigers. We were then asked to each stand up and say our names; some of us looked about the same or at least recognizable, but some did not. The ladies were warned to not forget to say their maiden names. I was so focused on that instruction that when it was my turn I blurted out, “Rita Fidler,” until Jeff poked me and hissed “Dorn!” which I added.
It was definitely the same building but bigger and fancier and with different hallways. Sandy and I looked for our lockers, which had been next to each other on the second floor when we attended – now an impossible mission. The band room was bigger and boasted cutting edge electronics. Cafeteria had moved from the third to the first floor but was now larger and fancier – redone of course. In my day, we had to dive, swim the length of the Olympic sized pool, some underwater, and return, as a requirement for graduation. Not a problem for me but it was for some who struggled with this. For me, swimming was way easier than math and science. We looked out of the enormous windows down onto the huge football field, brightly painted in the school colors of black and gold. After a few seconds of looking at it, several of us, recalling Shaker Heights as our major football rival then, began to chant, as if on cue, “Shaker’s got it. Shaker’s got it. SH for Shaker. IT for it.”
The tour was fun and then we were ready for lunch, so ten of us adjourned to Jack’s Deli (a new spot, at least new to me) for gigantic, incomparable corned beef sandwiches and locally famous chocolate phosphates. For the uninitiated, that is seltzer, chocolate syrup, and milk (I think). Heavenly delicious. The waitress had an attitude a mile long but finally we all got our food and enjoyed every bite, talking, eating, laughing, remembering. It all felt happy and cozy.
The reunion itself was scheduled for Saturday evening from 7 to 11 p.m., so after lunch we had a few free hours which we chose to spend downtown at the world-famous Cleveland Art Museum, where my brother Eric and I had taken art lessons, as kids. On Saturday mornings, my parents would drive us there, with paper bag lunches which the staff would stash in a cooler for us. Then we were given a narrated tour of one of the sections of the art museum; those lasted about an hour. We next returned to the studio where we were given materials to replicate our versions of the items which we liked best on the tour – photographs, sculpture, ceramics, oil paintings. Sometimes we could stand up afterward and talk briefly about our little masterpieces, which were then hung up on the wall until the next week when we could take them home. Lunch time followed and the museum provided milk for us to drink with our paper bagged sandwiches. Parent pickup followed lunch and those were our Saturday mornings for a few years. Our visit there this time piqued this memory for me.
I don’t know if they still do that but our own tour on the August afternoon of our return to Cleveland was wonderful – far too short, of course; we could have stayed all day. But being “elderly” now, we grew too soon tired and bade goodbye to the Inca bowls, ancient but damaged statues, jade jewelry, blown glass, modern renditions, and old masters oil paintings. Shades of the classes of my childhood – on the drive back to Sandy’s house, we shared our favorites, thereby extending the art museum experience.
We rested and relaxed and talked some. Sandy, a good hostess, showed off photos of her children and grandchildren and proudly told us that her daughter-in-law was a published author of a series of books, called Pajama Diaries, which is syndicated. She showed me the books. Being a published author myself, of course, I related.
After resting and freshening up, it was show time. The reunion was held in the large party room of a sports bar with the funky name of Winking Lizard. Irving picked us up, all of us nicely attired in “dressy casual.” Like at most large events of this type, people wore everything from faded jeans and plaid shirts (remember, this is Ohio) to highly fashionable and all decked out ensembles, complete with jewelry, perfect makeup, and very long eyelashes! Of a graduating class of about 535, 150 attended this 60th reunion. There were hors d’oeuvres of favorites like chilled shrimp, chicken wings, cheeses, crudities, and a well-stocked bar. A photographer made his rounds, catching candids and letting folks set up their own shots. He squeezed all of the alums into one big shot. On some walls, we noticed photos of earlier reunions where the groups were smaller, each one being of the students from one of the four feeder middle schools, then called junior highs. Better, but no one had asked my opinion.
The buffet dinner was served on a long, multi-table buffet of salad, pasta, meatballs, ribs, steak, and hot veggies of several varieties. Music, talking, eating, remembering, recognizing and sometimes not. It was a good thing we all got name tags, with small high school yearbook photo squares glued onto them, to identify us. The reunion committee had worked very hard. Basically, the women looked better than the men, I thought, perhaps due to hair color, makeup, outfits by design rather than whatever their hands touched first in the closet. The single women looked the best. The teens who had been strong, perky, outgoing, and personable in high school still seemed to be, despite the years. One former brunette cheerleader Deanna, was yet full of energy and still thin, although now blonde.
Classmates who knew me well before greeted me super warmly and wanted to pick up where we left off. Fine. Those who didn’t know me well acted as if they had, with effusive greetings of how happy they were to see me, even though we had never had one conversation in high school. They all liked Jeff, of course. Comedian that he is, Jeff went up to a few people, enthusiastically said their names and added, “I remember you.” The alums looked quizzically at him and Jeff went on, “You remember, in history class, right?” (Should he quit his day job?) We were invited to visit various couples in San Diego, Boston, Cincinnati, and other spots. Cards were exchanged. Many of us cruised from table to table – at least I did – finding new and old friends with whom to connect and reconnect. Several sad moments occurred when I asked about a few people and got the response, “He (or she) passed away.” Irving and Jeff remained good about it all. It was really like old times, sharing the evening with Sandy and my high school class of 1959.
Dessert was a huge homemade sheet cake that Elaine, one of the ladies on the committee, had baked. The delicious cake was topped with a frosting illustration of a guitar (Elvis’s, no doubt), a poodle skirt, and a rendering of the new Cleveland Heights High School building. Music played all evening and the reunion committee was introduced, thanked for their dedicated work, and given yellow roses. Song sheets (black print on gold paper – our school colors again) let everyone sing the alma mater. Bob, a friend of mine at the South Florida Writers Association, is also an alum –
class of 1949!! Knowing he couldn’t attend, but both of us proud of the fact that we knew all the words to the alma mater by heart, we recorded ourselves singing it. I brought the video along to share at the reunion.
My one complaint was that there was no dancing. When I voiced this, someone said the crowd was too old to dance; walkers, canes, and a few wheelchairs were there as proof. Furthermore, I had thought 11:00 was a bit early to end the evening on a Saturday night, but by 10:00 or 10:15, folks began to leave. I guess the committee knew its customers. Feeling happy and satisfied, we departed about 10:45 to go back to Sandy’s house to reminisce some more and review the evening.
Sunday morning, we slept in. Having been in Cleveland less than 48 hours, Miami seemed very far away – our house, our friends all were far in the background. Having seen several neighborhoods, Jeff fell in love with the lush trees and northern foliage. He even found a few houses he particularly liked, so he immediately checked on the web to see if they were for sale and how much they were worth. He decided that if we sold our house and moved to Cleveland, we could buy a bigger house for far less than we would get for our present house here in Miami. Jeff likes to dream. I loved visiting Cleveland and my childhood but my life is in Miami and I do not want to move anyplace. The snow there does not scare me as I loved it when young; I admit, however, that in my older years now, I might not like it as much as I did in the snowball, snowman, and snow fort days of my youth.
Another dear high school friend named Miriam had planned a brunch in our honor on Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. We arrived in good spirits, accepting in the back of our minds that would be the last activity before flying home. Miriam’s brunch was elegant; a fine array of foods was graciously displayed on her large dining room table. A young gentleman was there to help serve. She had left our high school year book, The Caldron, out on a desk which we all checked from time to time. In addition, she had CDs of 60s songs playing in the background, to keep us in the mood.
Our small world is illustrated by the fact that a man from our class whom we met at the brunch, David, is a renowned New York cantor who knows three religious leaders here in Miami whom we know very well. One gentleman had the last name of a girl who had been in my high school BBG club with me. When I asked him about her, he said she had been his sister who had passed away, having been a very troubled person. I recalled her as pretty, smiling, calm, seemingly in complete charge of her life and I often wished I were Judy. We saw some people who had been at the Saturday evening event and some who had not. It was a very satisfying few hours. Furthermore, Miriam’s daughter, son-in-law, and two grand-daughters stopped by. Since I’d known Miriam since second grade, seeing her children was a special treat. Sandy and Irv enjoyed this time too, Sandy having stayed in touch with many classmates who had remained in Cleveland or environs, as she had.
A true highlight was that, toward the end of the brunch, Miriam invited me to read aloud from one of my poetry books with which I had gifted her. I agreed, saying I would read six selections. When I finished, they asked for six more, which I gladly read. The guests were responsive and receptive. That brunch ended well, with emails exchanged and promises to keep in touch, which some of them have kept.
But what trip to Cleveland would be complete without a visit to Davis Bakery, which although no longer at Cedar Center, was now still in the area? Irv good-naturedly agreed to stop at Davis Bakery. The well-known company, which once boasted eight stores, now has two. I went in, surveyed all the sweet merchandise, and finally selected four caramel/chocolate sea salt bars, a pound of delectable butter cookies, and a Davis Bakery potholder! We hoarded those treats, trying to make them last as long as possible. Moreover, Jeff phoned Davis Bakery a week later and ordered 12 more bars to be sent to us, Fed Ex.
Finally, back at Sandy’s house, it was time to say goodbye to Sandy and Irv and thank them for their many kindnesses, take our rental car, and head for the airport. We had gotten a non-stop flight outbound to Cleveland, but could not manage that on our return. Cleveland to Charlotte, N.C., with only an hour or so layover, and Charlotte to Miami – not so bad. We should be home by midnight. My attitude is that any flight that does not crash is a successful one. We reached Charlotte and were given repeated messages at the gate that our flight was delayed, delayed, and delayed again. Finally the flight was cancelled because an incoming flight from Chicago which carried all four of our flight attendants departed late due to bad weather.
American Airlines gave us vouchers for cab rides, the hotel cost, and a meal. Good. Not good was that the lines for the vouchers were very long and by now we were pretty tired. When we got to the hotel, the line to check in was very long. At 2:00 a.m., only one desk clerk was on duty. We finally got into our room, nice and clean and comfy, at 2:30, but had to be back at 7:00 a.m. for a 9:30 flight because we had to go through security again, having left the airport. We did and got home Monday at noon, picked up our dog Mazel at the pet resort where he had been staying, and basked in our happiness to be home…very happy that we had gone. The unexpected overnight stay in Charlotte was bothersome but not devastating, because we were not working on Monday. As Will Shakespeare said, “All’s Well That Ends Well.”
NOTE: The committee was not only not discussing a 70th reunion in ten years, but it wasn’t even talking much about a 65th reunion in five years. They were pushing for a reunion in two years, to be called an 80th birthday party, when we would all turn 80 sometime that year. I guess that does make sense. How can high school seniors even conceive of how and who they will be 30, 40, 50, 60 years hence? Impossible! So glad we went, glad we got home safely although late, and glad to anticipate another event in two years. I offered to be on the reunion committee to help plan the next one, whenever it is. And I will be sure to put in my suggestion for dancing – for whoever can do it. Yay, Cleveland Heights High School, and Cleveland Heights, my hometown. We did go home again!!