Most of this advice comes from the people I interviewed. Many talked about what pleased them about their trip and what they wished they had done differently. I’ve compiled some of their suggestions here. I hasten to add that these are merely suggestions, to be considered and used only if they make sense. The best guide when visiting your childhood home probably is to follow your own feelings. But perhaps by thinking ahead just a little, you can make the most of your experience.

Jerry M. Burger

Questions to Ask Beforehand

Do You Want to Go Alone or Share the Experience?

Slightly more than half the people I interviewed took someone with them on their trip. In almost all cases, this was a family member or romantic partner. Of course, there are practical reasons to travel with another person, including safety and shared expenses. But most of the participants who brought along a traveling companion did so for other reasons. Most talked about wanting to share the experience. Revealing your childhood home to another person is a powerful way to share something important about yourself.

Taking someone with you almost certainly makes for a very different experience than visiting by yourself. If you do opt for a traveling companion, my advice is to select someone who is almost as eager to see your former home and community as you are, or at least someone who understands your interest in visiting. One woman I interviewed discovered too late that her two daughters were not old enough to appreciate what the visit meant to her. Her desire to stop and reminisce was repeatedly thwarted by the girls’ natural restlessness.

If geography and time permit, you might combine a visit to your childhood home with a visit to your companion’s childhood home. My parents did this one summer. They drove from California to Hutchinson, Kansas, where my father visited the community he had not seen in nearly 50 years. He had no trouble locating the house he grew up in and the fishing hole where he and his brothers often caught the evening’s meal. Then it was off to the southeast corner of Missouri, where my mother was born. She saw what remained of the town of Cardwell, which had never boasted more than a few hundred residents even when my mother lived there. A stop at Branson on the way back made the entire trip a memorable vacation.

What Do You Want to Accomplish?

It can be useful to ask yourself beforehand what you want to get out of your trip. Answering this question can help you decide, among other things, the places you want to visit when you get there. If you’re seeking answers to religious questions, you might want to visit the church you attended as a child. If you’re working on issues with deceased parents, would a stop at a cemetery be useful? Of course, most people visit childhood homes without specific agendas. If this is your situation, then simply ask yourself what you hope to gain by the trip. Put another way, what would make the trip a success for you?

It’s also OK to have no clear answer to this question before you go. Many of the people I interviewed were not entirely certain what motivated them when they began their trips. In fact, quite a few said they were responding only to a vague feeling that this was something they wanted to do. Often these individuals came to understand the reasons for their trip as the visit unfolded. However — if you can — articulating what you hope to gain from the trip probably will help you to answer a few other practical questions worth asking before you go. One of these I’ve already mentioned — whether you want to take someone with you. Here are a few others:

 

Are there any people you want to visit, or do you just want to see the places?

How long will you stay?

Does the time of year or day of the week matter?

Will you need special clothing or equipment (such as hiking boots or a flashlight)?

Will certain places be open (such as a school or gymnasium)?

Some Advice Before You Go

Allow enough time

How long should the trip be? Some people I interviewed reported very satisfying trips that lasted less than an hour, whereas others visited for more than a week. The best advice I can give is to leave the schedule as open-ended as possible. Many of my participants simply stayed until they felt it was time to move on. Of course, airline tickets, hotel reservations, limited vacation days and many other factors can make this strategy difficult or impossible. But if you travel more than a half day’s drive to get there, it’s probably in your best interest to err on the side of allowing too much time. Having an extra day or two seems like much less of a problem than leaving before you feel you’re ready. Alternative plans can help — for example, an option to visit a nearby national park if you decide not to stay a second night. You could even select alternate destination sites that relate to your past, such as the place where your family used to vacation, the town where your grandparents lived, or the community where you went to college.

Make a list

At least a couple of weeks before the trip, begin a list of the places you might want to see. Start with the obvious locations — home, schools, church, friends’ houses, playgrounds, parks, neighborhood stores, hang-outs. Add any place that retrieves a special memory or has special meaning for you. You don’t have to visit them all, but it’s better to start with a large list than leave something important out. After you’ve jotted down all the places that come to mind, see if any of these categories suggests some others:

 

Special personal places from childhood. Tree houses, forts, caves, overgrown trees, clearings in the woods, barns.

 

Places of accomplishment. Sites of successes, victories or jobs well done in sports, debate, chess, music, drama, drawing, singing, scouting, spelling, baking, raising livestock.

 

Places of failure, pain and disappointment. Sites in which you did not do well in any of the above, or places associated with public humiliations, romantic break-ups, accidents, arrests, arguments, losses.

“First” places. The place where you experienced your first kiss, dance, date, employment, drink, camping trip, driving lesson, shopping trip without your parents, traffic ticket.

Places you visited regularly as a child. For piano lessons, haircuts, speech therapy, soccer practice, after-school care, work on your braces, karate lessons.

Places related to your parents. Where they worked, where they lived, where they met, where they went to school, where they used to bowl, sing, volunteer or dance.

 

It’s best to start your list a week or two before the trip, because you most likely will think of more places as the date of departure approaches. You probably also will scratch a few places off the list. Think of it as a work in progress. When it seems you’ve remembered just about every place you might want to see, jog your memory a little. Pull out yearbooks, old letters and any photographs you have from childhood. If you are still in contact with friends or relatives from your childhood, start up a conversation about the good old days and see if any other place you hadn’t thought of emerges. One man I interviewed did this and was reminded by his sister of his fear of swimming. That memory prompted him to visit the site of his first swimming lesson — a lesson that had lasted only about five minutes before he left crying. However, I should add that the story has a happy ending. The man went on to be an accomplished swimmer and included a visit to his high school swimming pool in his trip.

Don't rely solely on memory

Many of the people I spoke with were surprised to find that they no longer remembered how to find places that they could once travel to without thinking. A few never did locate a building, lake or hiking trail they wanted to see. It’s one of the tricks of memory. We often don’t realize what we don’t know until we need to know it. Moreover, things change. Some of the landmarks you once relied on may no longer exist. It’s also the case that you are now an adult experiencing the world the way adults do, not the way you did as a child. These days you probably stay on the sidewalk rather than crawl through hedges and or climb over rocks. Which means you might not even notice the pathways and landmarks you once used when navigating your way through the physical world of your childhood.

In short, relying solely on memory to locate some of the places on your list might not be the best idea. If it’s been a while since you’ve been back, I suggest you start by obtaining a detailed map of the community. If your childhood home is nearby, in a large city, or a tourist destination, then you can probably pick up a map locally (AAA members have an advantage here). Sometimes chambers of commerce or city governments will mail maps and other information about the community to those who request them. If it’s difficult to get a map beforehand, make it a priority when you first arrive. Of course, on-line map services can pinpoint addresses on small-scale maps that you can then print out and keep together in one organized place. Google maps even allows you to view photos of buildings to make sure the place you’re looking for is still standing or is really the place you’re thinking of.

Mark your map(s) with the places on your list. The point is not to figure out the most efficient route. In fact, I suggest you visit the places on your list in a sequence that matches your needs and moods. The purpose of marking your map beforehand is so you can spend less time searching and more time experiencing the places you want to see. To that end, you might want to consult address books, Christmas card lists and other references — including family members — to make sure you know where these places are located. The Internet can be helpful here. White pages, yellow pages, and on-line search engines make it easier than ever to find the addresses of stores, schools, churches, theaters, etc.

But there’s another reason to get a map of your hometown before or during the trip. There is a difference between an accurate map of a community and what psychologists refer to as a cognitive map. Cognitive maps are the representations of cities, counties, communities, etc., that we have in our heads. They help us find our way around, but they’re full of gaps and usually not very accurate. The cognitive map you have of the neighborhood you grew up in is probably quite different from what you’ll see on a real map. It also can be an interesting and instructive experience to compare the real layout of the town with the one in your head. Among the discoveries that struck me when I first did this was how very small my world had been when I was growing up. What I thought of as my hometown probably consisted of no more than 20 percent of the entire city.

Take a camera

Perhaps the most common regret I heard from the people I interviewed was, “I wish I had brought a camera.” Taking along a camera may seem like an obvious suggestion, yet only 22 percent of the people in my study had done so. Of course, this was before cameras became standard equipment on cell phones. In some cases, my participants had no camera because the visit was a spontaneous detour when traveling through the area for other reasons. But more often, people simply had not anticipated their reactions to what they encountered. One woman started crying when she saw the apple tree still standing in her former back yard. She wanted to capture the scene and take it back with her, but she had no camera. “That’s reason enough to make the trip again,” she said. “Just so I can get a picture of my tree.”

So, take a camera. You might leave it in your suitcase or the trunk of your car the entire trip. But you might be surprised at how many scenes are worth a moment to photograph. You also may be surprised by how many people who, upon hearing about your visit, will ask if they can see some pictures.

Take a notebook

I strongly suggest you invest a few dollars in a notebook. A few loose pieces of paper might do the trick, but my advice is to get a notebook you can devote exclusively to the trip. Many stationary shops and book stores sell attractive hardbound books with blank pages. In addition to being durable, they look nice on a bookshelf. But simpler bound notebooks also work.

What do you put in this notebook? Obviously, no two will be alike. But if you obtain your notebook early enough, it makes sense to include your tentative list of places you want to visit. You may want to start your list on a separate sheet of paper, and then copy the surviving items into your notebook after the additions and deletions. You also may want to use your notebook like a journal or a diary. If you are going to be gone several days, you might use the first few pages to keep a record of the places you go and what you see there. And don’t overlook the little things. Sometimes small but wonderful events on the trip can be pushed into the corners of our memories by the more dramatic moments.

You may also want to use a section of your notebook for reflective writing. Most people who visit childhood homes find the experience triggers a chain of thoughts. Perhaps seeing the room you shared with your sister or the shop where your father worked will set off a series of memories and insights. Get these thoughts on paper, ideally within a few hours. At some later date, these notes can help you recover the experience as well as provide a more complete picture of your visit. You may also encounter a few long-buried memories that strike an emotional chord. A line or two in your notebook about the place, the memory and your reaction to it might be useful when later reflecting on the experience.

Keep expectations in check

My book is filled with stories of people who found their visit to a childhood home a highly emotional and valuable experience. One concern I have in presenting these stories is the unrealistic expectations they might create. A few of the people I spoke with described their visit as a turning point in their lives, but the vast majority simply found the experience pleasant and rewarding. Expect the latter for your visit. If it turns out to be more inspirational and emotionally satisfying than you had imagined, so much the better.

Some advice for when you get there

Be flexible

Think of your list as more of a guideline than an itinerary. Some people find that the most memorable moments of the trip come from visiting places they hadn’t even considered at the outset. While visiting her former church, one woman got the urge to drive 30 miles to the campground (run by the church) where she had spent part of each summer during her youth. After seeing the hardware store where he once worked, one man decided to have lunch at a nearby diner, just like he and his coworkers used to. Also be prepared to rearrange the order in which you visit the sites on your list. Better to let your mood dictate where you go next. Of course, deviating from the original plan may leave you without enough time to see everything. But keep in mind that, in most cases, you can always come back.

Leave time for reflection

Many of the people I interviewed talked about the value they found in quiet moments of reflection. They allowed themselves time for walks or to sit quietly in a park or by a lake they had known as a child. Visiting significant places from your past inevitably triggers a wealth of memories and emotions. This is part of what people are looking for when they make the trip. They recall events they hadn’t thought about in decades, ponder sudden insights, and look for lessons in their life’s stories. The experience can be exhilarating, but it can also be emotionally and mentally exhausting. Allow some time to reflect on what you’ve just seen and your reactions to the experience. Meals often provide good break times. They can also provide a good time to write in your notebook, putting thoughts into words and your feelings into perspective.

Of course, finding private time for reflection is more difficult when you take along a friend or family member. The awkwardness of asking for some alone time can be eased if you and your companion discuss this possibility prior to the trip.

Bring back physical reminders

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you will remember a particular place or moment forever. Some images and emotions are so powerful that they seem invincible to the effects of time. But psychologists know this feeling is often an illusion. The good news is that physical reminders of your former home and community can serve as triggers for reviving fading memories. Photographs are the most obvious physical reminders, but the people I spoke with often slipped other objects into their suitcases and trunks. These mementos included bark, soil, pieces of brick and part of a mailbox.

What makes a good souvenir? First, think about what might evoke an emotion or memory six months or a year later. The more unique the object, the better. It’s great to find a shiny rock in the back of a drawer and remember that you retrieve it from the river behind your house. But it’s even better if you’ve never seen a rock that particular shade of red anywhere else but in your river. Second, consider the symbolic value of the object. A chip of brick will mean more if it comes from the wall you and your father constructed one summer.

And don’t worry that scooping up a jar of soil from your grandfather’s farm or taking a rusty nail from a broken-down fence post seems foolish or childlike. If this is an issue for you, think of any tourist attraction and imagine the amount of money people spend on tee-shirts, coffee mugs, varnished slabs of redwood, and other mass-produced souvenirs just to prove they went to Disney World, Yellowstone or Maui. Surely taking home a reminder of a place near and dear to your heart makes all the sense in the world by comparison. People take physical reminders of their trips to childhood homes for some of the same reasons they make the trip in the first place. The objects provide a kind of validation for important parts of their lives, which is to say, for a part of who they are. And there’s nothing foolish in that.

Physical reminders also will help you to share the experience with friends and family upon your return. I remember how eager I was to see pictures of the farm where my mother spent a good part of her childhood and the fishing hole my father remembered so fondly. The photographs told me something about the kind of childhood my parents experienced and filled in details in the mental images I had of their former homes. Siblings who grew up in the same home will probably be especially interested in seeing what you bring back from your visit. Photographs aren’t as powerful as being there, but the memories and emotions they evoke are similar. In fact, several of the people I spoke with said that their visit to the old home and neighborhood caused other family members to make the trip. One woman I describe in the book scooped up some pine cones from the tree her father had planted. When her sister, who had never been back to the old home, saw the pine cones, she asked if she could have them. To my surprise, the woman generously gave her sister the pine cones.

Knock on doors

When people ask what discovery from my research amazes me the most, the first thing that comes to mind is how utterly common it is for people to visit a childhood home. My second answer is how readily people open their doors to a stranger who says, “I used to live here.” I heard repeatedly in my interviews about being invited inside to take a look — sometimes even being left alone to look around. Several people told me they wanted to knock on the door but lacked the nerve. In no case did a participant tell me about being refused. Of course, I may not have heard about the refusals. Nonetheless, it is clear that current residents often are agreeable to letting a former resident — perhaps particularly one who lived there as a child — through the front door.

So my advice is to give it a try. Of course, you should be respectful of the current resident’s wishes and, if allowed inside, try not to take up too much time or be disruptive. No participant talked about this, but it seems to me that a little “proof” that you are who you say you are might be helpful. Photographs of the house taken many years ago, particularly some you appear in, might assuage a resident’s concerns. I would also ask permission before snapping any photographs inside the house. And a thank-you card once you return seems appropriate and might even pave the way for future contact.

Some advice for when you return

Catch your breath, then take time to reflect

Many of my participants often thought about their visit in the weeks and months that followed. Of course, these were all individuals who had volunteered to tell me about their experience, and so they may have been more likely than most to reflect on their trip. But sometimes the immediacy of an experience can be misleading, whereas time often provides a useful perspective.

To fully appreciate your trip, you may find it helpful to set aside some time to reflect on the visit a few weeks after you return. Maybe you’ll just let your thoughts linger on the trip during your usual morning walk. Or perhaps you’ll want to pick up your notebook and write down your observations. Simply looking over your notebook, photographs, and other physical mementos might also evoke useful insights.

Share your thoughts

Among the biggest surprises in my research was how many people visited their childhood home yet kept the experience to themselves. Many had told no one about their trip until their interview. This silence was most common among people in the Current Issues and Unfinished Business categories, perhaps because of the private nature of the issues they were working on. But others kept their visit to themselves out of fear that people wouldn’t understand or, worse, that they would come across as a little nutty.

If anything, participants who shared their stories found their friends and family were eager to learn about the trip. Why wouldn’t they want to hear about it? If your siblings once lived in the same house, how could they not want to see the photographs and hear how the old neighborhood looks? And initiating these conversations can have additional benefits. There’s a good chance your friends and relatives will share a few stories from their past that you might otherwise never hear. One woman described her experience this way: “My sister and I never talked much about our childhood, or our parents, for that matter. Then I showed her the pictures I took of the house and all, and we spent the next two hours just talking about what we had gone through as girls, and what we remembered about each other from when we were kids. I can tell you, I felt a lot closer to my sister after that.”