Woog's World / Sorry, Thomas Wolfe, you CAN go home again
Published 6:05 am, Thursday, September 22, 2011
Several weeks ago, a two-part "Woog's World" honored the Staples High School Class of 1961. Thanks to that group's outstanding website, I cited a dozen or so graduates as examples of the broad variety of life choices, lifestyles and lives that members of that class have lived in the half century since they left Westport.
Or not left.
The final grad mentioned -- I went alphabetically -- was Joe Valiante. A career Westport firefighter who retired with the rank of assistant chief, he also served seven terms on the representative town meeting and volunteered as a tax consultant for seniors and middle income families.
"I bet you had to search pretty hard to find someone who's still in Westport," one reader -- not a native Westporter -- sneered.
Westport is filled with Staples alumni. There's a contingent of a certain age, of course -- the boys and girls who attended the original high school on Riverside Avenue, just as their parents and grandparents had, and who then moved right into the family business, whether that was a store, factory or the police force. But many others, from the classes of the 1960s and `70s on through the 2000s, are here too.
Some never wanted to leave, or always knew they'd be back. Some -- perhaps the majority -- could not imagine ever setting foot in Westport again, after growing up here. Now they're raising their own kids in their old home town.
For decades, Staples students have voiced the same lament: "There's nothing to do here. This town is so lame. I can't wait to get out."
But somewhere, somehow, something happens. During college they bring new friends and roommates here to visit. Those out-of-towners -- who know Westport only from the stories they've heard -- gaze at this town with fresh eyes. They remark on its wonders. They love it here, and ask to be invited back. With time -- sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly -- their hosts hear what they've said, look around and see some nice things too.
Out of college, plenty of young people gravitate to New York. It's an exciting, energizing place to work, and an equally thrilling place to live -- even if your apartment is smaller than your Westport bedroom, and the street noise is as loud as when the garbage truck used to collect trash, except now it's 24/7.
But there's something about being surrounded by concrete, with no Compo nearby. Weekends in Westport suddenly seem not so bad -- particularly in the summer. While a number of New Yorkers pay exorbitant sums to share vacation homes with strangers -- and ride hours through brutal traffic to get there and back -- the Westport ex-pats hop the train. They're here in an hour -- "home," they might even say, to their parents' delight and their own surprised horror.
It's not just New Yorkers. Staples grads do interesting, important things around the globe. But work, caring for parents, the holidays, reunions, whatever -- bring them back here. They've seen the world -- and other suburbs. Now, Westport does not look quite as boring and bad as before.
When kids are born, everything changes. The school system that Westport youngsters pay no attention to now looms large -- even before the baby is ready to enroll. House size, acreage, libraries, recreation opportunities -- all become important factors to growing families.
Westport stacks up well in every category. The teenage self that shrieked "I have to get out of here!" has grown into an older adult who wonders, "How can I get back?"
Every calculation is different. Spouses who grew up elsewhere may not like the idea of moving to a partner's "home." Spouses who also went to Staples -- and there are plenty of those --also may be wary of a return.
There are job issues, commuting issues, living-too-close-to-parent issues. There are finances to worry about, along with more abstract concerns: "Is the Westport I'm thinking of moving back to the same place I left, or have I created an idealized version of something that no longer exists?"
If the questions are answered satisfactorily -- or maybe even if they're not -- ex-Westporters become Westporters again. New homes are bought, or old ones moved back into. Children enter a parent's former school, or attend one that used to be a "rival." Kids join the same Westport Soccer Association or Little League as Dad did, or the Water Rats Mom swam for, or they surprise everyone by enjoying entirely new activities entirely.
And so it goes. The cycle of life continues. The youngsters who move here today with their coming-home parents may themselves feel they've been sentenced to life in a lame, boring town. They'll complain they can't wait to leave.
Then one day, 20 or 30 years from now, they too may start trying to find their way back home.