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Sometimes in pensive older age, perhaps prompted by an occasion, one reflects anew on the obvious.

My wife and I were in Vienna to visit a granddaughter studying there on a college semester abroad. Redolent with more music history than any other city in the world, Vienna is Mecca for the classical music lover, and that rainy day had been for me a lingering visit to the Mozarthaus, at Domgasse 5, in the shadow of the stupendous St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Here, having two years earlier in this cathedral married Constanze Weber against the wishes of his domineering father and having also made his decisive break with his Salzburg employer, Archbishop Hieronymus—again to the consternation of his father—Mozart lived from 1784 to 1788, in the most elegant and expensive apartment of his Vienna years.

Mozarthaus, Vienna

Here, as the exhibit accented, is where he composed The Marriage of Figaro. From here, too, in a happy and productive time, came many other of his most important works. Might this be the window, one pondered, out of which he stared as the ravishing theme for one of his great piano concerti of the time flooded in? Is this the likely room in which he indulged his passion for billiards, music paper at hand to jot down a bar or two between shots? And is this the room in which on two occasions, January 15 and February 12, 1785, Haydn first heard the six string quartets the younger Mozart had dedicated to him, prompting from the older, established composer, according to a letter written soon after by Mozart’s father, one of the grander (and most quoted) endorsements in music history: “Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name.”

What creatures of place we all are, it struck me, whether in connecting with the lives of the great or with our own more modest lives. Dominant for many of us are the houses and neighborhoods in which we’ve lived, not least those in which we were young, in some cases a single place that shaped and colored our entire life, and in other cases—as in mine—a series of places marking our early years and beyond.

”The writing of lives,” notes biographer Hermione Lee in her preface to the lovely, coedited volume Lives of Houses (Princeton University Press, 2020), “often involves writing about houses. Bringing a house to life through observation, familiarity, memory, or excavation can be a vital part of narrating the life of an individual, a family, or a group: life-writing as housework.”

“Life-writing as housework.” Here is another collection of essays in which I recently dipped, bringing houses and their occupants to life: The House That Made Me: Writers Reflect on the Places and People That Defined Them (Sparkpress, 2016). The organizing leitmotif for this handsomely designed little volume is that all of its writers revisit and reflect on their early locales via Google Earth, a nicely ironic way of recovering reality through virtual reality—or at least the memory of this reality, the real thing sometimes having changed markedly over the years.

Here, in one essay, is the grittier South Side of Chicago that I, too, once knew. And here, in another, the tonier North Shore that I decidedly didn’t (unless we want to count my sadly black-sneakered high school tennis-team appearance, circa 1958, on the fashionable country-club courts of the North Shore Country Day School)! And here, beginning the book, is nearby Wacousta, Michigan, where I’ve never actually been, but which countrified midwest terrain also closely mirrors a part of my past.

Google Earth. In my younger brother’s final months of declining health before his death two years ago, my sisters and I began texting conversations together with him. And what better way to jump-start early memories than through satellite photos of the houses in which we had lived? All but one were readily available online and still easily recognizable, whatever now the fully grown trees or the missing fence.

Poignancy, of course, but, as usual in our family, with humor breaking in. Wasn’t that the next-door driveway where irrepressible (eight-year-old?) Billy M______ had once cleared the snow from the family’s brand new Ford Galaxy using a garden rake, leaving his stunned father to survey a car that might have been mauled by a puma?

And wasn’t this the parsonage where, with family gathered round, I had so expectantly plugged in and turned on my new Knight-Kit shortwave radio, months in meticulous construction, only to have the bandwidth swamped by The Back to God Hour, radio broadcast of the Christian Reformed Church? So much for the intrigue of the KGB or the distant romance of ships at sea. HCJB, the “Voice of the Andes,” intruding with missionary zeal from Quito, Ecquador.”

But, yes, poignancy, too. There, pictured from above, was that parsonage with the backyard apple tree I loved to climb. And, in a blurred black-and-white photo now before me as I write, sits my brother outdoors in his springy jumper chair, dappled in the sunlight by that overhanging tree. It was from this tree that my father called me down one day to give me the first truly sad news of my life. My schoolmate Freddie had been hit and killed a few hours ago by an automobile. Before the funeral, all of us in that little country school were led, gently and solemnly, single-file before the open coffin in the church.

The trouble with a lot of people, writer Flannery O’Conner once said, is that “they ain’t ‘frum’ anywhere.” I know what she meant, but of course we all, in our differing ways, are. And so embedded are we in our distinctive places— and our places in us— that we may wonder whether our identity could ever—forever— truly be separated from them.

In a luminous conversation I recently encountered, Marilynne Robinson comments that at the resurrection she expects, overwhelmingly, to be surprised. To be sure. Yet, the thought persists, what continuities might also be in play in a new heaven and a new earth, what still connecting memories to places that have made us uniquely who we are? Will that boy of some seventy years ago still in memory come down from an apple tree, and will two great composers still recall those two auspicious occasions in a room on Domgasse where they so generously honored each other’s gifts?

As to memories of my own treasured first encounters with Mozart and Haydn—encouraged by an insistent father—I go back to a formidable gray parsonage at the bottom of a cobbled hill in Patterson. The house and church, as far as I can tell from Google Earth, are no longer there, but I can still hear those lifelong sounds, the old 78s clattering successively down.

Jon Pott

Jon Pott is the former Editor-in-Chief of the William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company and The Reformed Journal. 


  • Ruth E. Stubbs says:

    Lovely, Jon! You are stirring memories for me. Writing them down is important work.

  • Henry Baron says:

    One blessing of the retirement life is the time – and need – to resuscitate memories of the life behind you, memories of places and people and experiences that shaped important parts of your being.
    And you do it so well, Jon. Thank you!

  • Bruce Buursma says:

    Now, through the mist of our receding past, I’m recounting a Sunday afternoon transgression (playing baseball with my brother while our parents were away) between the church and the parsonage on Ridge Road in Munster, Indiana. Oh, the places we’ve been. Oh, the places we’ll go.
    Another evocative piece, Jon. Keep stirring the Pott, please.

  • Richard Blauw says:

    Dear Jon,Thanks for this fine essay. Your wry insight and deft weaving of ideas sparked many nascent memories from high school and college years. Thanks again!

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Thank you. Thank you.

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