In the London Review Of Books, James Wood writes a long, rambling, but absorbing essay reflecting on the fact that he left England nearly two decades ago for what he assumed would be a short stay in America, but here he remains, raising his American children. The essay concludes:

When I left this country 18 years ago, I didn’t know how strangely departure would obliterate return: how could I have done? It’s one of time’s lessons, and can only be learned temporally. What is peculiar, even a little bitter, about living for so many years away from the country of my birth, is the slow revelation that I made a large choice a long time ago that did not resemble a large choice at the time; that it has taken years for me to see this; and that this process of retrospective comprehension in fact constitutes a life – is indeed how life is lived. Freud has a wonderful word, ‘afterwardness’, which I need to borrow, even at the cost of kidnapping it from its very different context. To think about home and the departure from home, about not going home and no longer feeling able to go home, is to be filled with a remarkable sense of ‘afterwardness’: it is too late to do anything about it now, and too late to know what should have been done. And that may be all right.

My Scottish grandmother used to play a game, in which she entered the room with her hands behind her back. You had to guess which hand held a sweet, as she intoned: ‘Which hand do you tak, the richt or the wrang?’ When we were children, the decision seemed momentous: you had at all costs to avoid the disappointment of the empty ‘wrang hand’.

Which did I choose?

There is no way to know the answer, not in this life, for at least two reasons. One, you cannot know what would have become of you had you stayed. Two, the you that you are is only you because of the experiences you’ve had in the Not-Home. I could no more take the Washington, the New York City, the Dallas, and so forth, out of me if I wanted to.

I was thinking just today at church, listening to our priest speak of the Prodigal Son, how the Prodigal’s experience out in the world, as immiserating as it was to him, had become part of the Prodigal’s character. He may have returned from the world chastened by hard experience, but he cannot purify his memory of the world — nor would he necessarily want to. Having known what it is like to leave home, and to be welcomed back, he has arguably a better appreciation for what home means than the Good Son who never left. One imagines that he also has a keener sense of mercy for having left, and failed, and been received back in love.

Whatever the case, the Prodigal caroused with the sinners and ended up living with the pigs, and that experience changed him. You can go home again, if they’ll have you, but you can’t go home again in the sense of forgetting what you saw when you were away from your home, making your home elsewhere.

Still, I greatly sympathize with Wood’s perspective, especially the uneasiness that comes over a father realizing that his children will be strangers to his own home. It first hit me when we were living in NYC and had our first-born child. My wife and I adored NYC, and assumed we would stay all our lives there. Why not? It was a great place to be young marrieds. Having our son, though, made me reflect on what it would mean to raise children who were New Yorkers — which is to say, to raise children who were not Southerners. My two subsequent children were born in Texas, but Texas, though not quite Southern, is culturally Southern by comparison to other regions of the country. I didn’t feel so alien in Texas as I did in other parts of the country, even though I loved living in those other places. It is a source of deep existential comfort to me that my children will grow up with a sense that the South, especially south Louisiana, is their home. I think sometimes about my priest and his wife, how they are from Washington state, and now they will be raising kids as Southerners. This must sting at some level; how could it not? We all know how it works for immigrants: the children are always more formed by the alien culture than by the culture of their parents. Maybe some immigrant parents prefer that to having their children de-formed by their home culture. Even so, it’s a loss of identity, and that hurts.

I mustn’t go too far down this road. After all, I know all too well what it’s like to be on the sharp end of a stick wielded by those who make an idol of home. This isn’t quite what the jealous brother was up to in the parable of the Prodigal Son, but it’s not far from the mark. The faithful son was angry that the father gave a warm welcome to his long lost son, because that struck him as unjust. No doubt the faithful son also felt — as my own sister did — that the prodigal brother’s leaving was a rejection of him as well as their father. If he defined himself, the faithful son, by fidelity to family and place, and believed that is the proper way to define oneself, then yes, the prodigal’s leaving home could hardly be seen as otherwise.

But what if the prodigal son had not wrecked his life out in the world? What if he had prospered, and had come home to renew his ties, and to start a new life with his family? Wouldn’t that complicate the story a great deal? What if the prodigal son had not been prodigal (“prodigal” means wasting resources by spending lavishly), but rather came home not out of desperate need, but out of love? Would he have deserved a warm welcome from their father then? What kind of welcome would he deserve from the faithful brother? Why?

In a way, it might be easier for the faithful brother and the father to welcome the prodigal back if he had lost everything, and been reduced to nothing. At least then he would have Learned His Lesson, and right order would have been restored to the world. And what would the Non-Prodigal Son carry with him from the world he saw beyond his home, if he came home with no regrets about having left in the first place? What lessons should he draw about the meaning of home?

I think about this a lot.

Whether you stay or whether you go, you will never know what the right answer for you would have been. There will be times when the road not taken will seem like the one you ought to have been on. But most of us will never be in a position to know for sure. There’s that amazing confession my father made to me at the end of The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, when he reconsidered the path he took through life. He was the Good Son who stayed faithful to his family and their desires, and now, at the end of his life, he doubts he did the right thing. But how can he ever really know? At a certain point, when you’ve lived far beyond the point of decision, counterfactual histories are daydreams.

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