“I heard that lonesome whistle blow.”
Who has not felt a twinge in heart or spine from that song — or from the actual locomotive itself?
To me, the ultimate lonesome feeling is homesickness. Robert Frost used it in defining poetry: “A poem begins,” he wrote, “as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It finds the thought, and the thought finds the words.”
A person in the throes of homesickness, however, cannot find the apt words. And the listener who has never felt homesickness simply cannot appreciate the awful feeling.
I first experienced homesickness at age 12. I was visiting relatives in a small Illinois town and having a marvelous time. My cousins and I roamed the woods, fashioned a sculpture, swung from the backyard elm, read comic books and ate popsicles galore.
Then suddenly one night, I couldn’t sleep. The village clock cruelly chimed every quarter hour. I wanted my mother, but she was 500 miles away. A sharp pang of loss took over. I cried until sleep finally overwhelmed me.
During the days that followed, I was fine. But each night, it became worse. I was sick without Mother. I begged my 17-year-old sister to return home. She was not sympathetic.
The small-town boys were fascinated by her, a gorgeous, big-city girl. She had a date every night and was invited on an upcoming Mississippi River cruise aboard The Admiral.
She firmly shook me. “We are not going home! You can just get over it!”
Two miserable weeks later, I finally did get over it — when I hugged my mother at the Omaha train station. But I never forgot the emotional nightmares. Ever since, I’ve always been attentive to varying depictions.
There is the epic account of Odysseus, “devoured by grief and homesickness,” yearning for Ithaca from Calypso’s island. His soul was racked by “tears and groans.” But what of modern renderings?
In Willa Cather’s novel “Song of the Lark,” young Thea Kronberg from eastern Colorado comes to Chicago in the early 1900s to study piano. At her first concert downtown in the Auditorium Building, she hears Dvorák’s symphony “From the New World.” Thea’s “hands and feet became as cold as ice.” She “wanted desperately” what the English horns gave in the largo: “the sand hills, the grasshoppers and locusts the reaching and reaching of high plains, the immeasurable yearning home first memories.”
In the novel (and 2015 movie) “Brooklyn,” Colm Toibin shows the young Irish woman Eilis in a boarding house after a day of clerking in a New York City department store. Having repressed it for days, she finally pictures “the life she had lost and would never have again of home, of her own room, the house in Friary Street, the food she had eaten there, the clothes she wore, how quiet everything was.”
All these things rapidly became “a terrible weight a despondency like how she felt when her father died and she watched them closing the coffin, the feeling that he would never see the world again and she would never be able to talk to him again.”
Recently, I met a man who was an 8-year-old boy in England during World War II. When the Luftwaffe was bombing London and outlying factory cities, children were sent to live with families in distant rural towns. He was assigned with another child to the home of two spinsters. They were not unkind but were not warm and welcoming.
Unmoored, the boy felt an aloneness that cried out for his beloved parents. He was an only child in their tight-knit threesome.
“And I was always hungry,” he remembered. “Always. Food was scarce and rationed. I could tell how hard it was for the host ladies not to begrudge the food two growing children were taking from them.”
He then added the detail that summarizes the situation poignantly. “They were allowed one egg a week. They fried it and carefully divided it into four.”
Homesickness ends eventually. It can even have a positive conclusion. But it will always be a challenge to describe.
Anne Tyler chose an unusual approach in her novel “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant,” so named because the owner wants to attract and console those without a home to yearn for. Ezra’s soups and casseroles symbolize that he understands what homesickness at best results in — empathy for others.