Thursday, August 24, 2012
Falling In Love Again… Or Is It the First Time?
In my misspent youth, I could find very little to love about my hometown in East Tennessee. It was too provincial, I felt, and it made me feel claustrophobic, as though I needed to claw my way out it, surrounded as it is by hills and mountains, albeit very beautiful ones. It won awards sometimes in national polls for Good Places to Live, but I for one could not see it. My perspective was that, though I loved the mountains, they trapped in the air pollution and collected the acid rain, and they were most definitely trapping me.
So, after my longer-than-average-and-longer-than-necessary college career there in my home town, I got out — first to Atlanta, the closest big city, and then to Dallas. No problem with mountains there — Dallas grew up out of a a cotton field.
Forty years later, after raising a family I wouldn’t trade for any other and spending forty Texas summers addicted to air conditioning, I can also see the climatological upside of being able to garden in Dallas almost year round. I had wanted different, and different I got.
During the intervening decades, my family and I drove yearly to East Tennessee for Christmas with my parents and extended family. I missed my relatives terribly, and it was always a wrench to leave them when our holidays ended. There were ongoing discussions with my own family about moving back to ‘hillbilly country’, but we never did.
When each of my parents died — mother, father, stepmother — I came to home to be with them, sometimes with my children, sometimes alone. It was an incalculable honor to be with my parents when they passed away, but it also meant that most of the memories of East Tennessee during the last fifteen years have been sad ones. So, for the better part of a decade, I’ve stayed away. When lifelong friends called and tried to stay in touch, I made excuses for not coming ‘home.’ I was compartmentalizing, I guess.
Yet there is always something about ‘fiddle playing’ — when I hear strains of it in Appalachian / Celtic music on the radio — that gets to me like no other instrumentation. That, and the banjo. You can take the girl out of the hills (or she can take herself out), but…
Last week, I needed to come home on family business and decided to make it a road trip. I stopped to stay with my lifelong best friend in Memphis, who is also named Karen. (Growing up, since we went to the same kindergarten, grammar school, high school, and college, one of us was “Karen” and one “The Other Karen” — yet which was which depended entirely upon who was talking!) Over the years, this lovely woman and her daughter, Joanna, have opened their home to me and my family every time we’ve passed through Memphis on our way east, which adds up to quite a few overnights.
This is my BFF Karen: I needed to make last week’s trip on the short notice, so I got on the road and called her from somewhere between Dallas and Memphis (after not talking to her for months) and said, “Uh, I’m going to be in Memphis tonight, and I was wondering if I could stay…” “Of course!” she said, “I’ll leave work early. [She’s the boss, so she can do that.] You’ll have to overlook the cat hair in the corners. John and I will cook for you.” “Sorry for the late notice,” I said. “You’re family!” she replied. By the time I pulled into town, she’d rounded up her daughter, son-in-law and grandson for a reunion, and we all sat down to a lovely home-cooked meal with fresh flowers, two different wines, and candles.
As I continued the drive eastward the following day, I felt surprisingly exhilarated. I was delighted, surprised, amazed at the joy I felt in returning to East Tennessee… I was homesick but hadn’t known it. Cruising down the freeway and into my hometown at the end of the day, I felt as if I were driving through a virtual matrix of emotions — sad ones, happy ones… feelings long shut away.
The next day, weaving through the campus of the university there that is my alma mater, I came face to face with the feelings of failure I carry about my uneven college career: the 3.5 GPA semesters alongside the 1.2 one that was my first time living away from home in the dorm; dropping out without graduating my ‘second senior year’ because I was tired of working and going to school.
There was happy stuff too: passing the campus theatre I remembered a class I took for which I was required to perform in a comic play, and, despite my ice cold terror, miraculously remembered my lines, and actually got a laugh.
More in the mixed-review category, I remembered when I discovered that the vending machines in the basement of that freshman dorm could replace meals as I pulled all nighters and then slept through the 7:30 a.m. freshman zoology exam I’d been studying for. (Speaking of which, why did I think that subject involved actual mammal-sized animals? Because it contains the word ‘zoo’???) I somehow became the official hair cutter for the girls on my floor, except I had no clue what I was doing — the closest I’d ever come to being a stylist was cutting the manes and tails of ponies in my youth. Those were some great girls in my dorm — tremendous support as I gained the Frosh 20 eating from the vending machines and ‘outgrew’ all my clothes.
As I passed by the Panhellenic building on campus on my driving tour last week, I thought of the time I was roped into being in a fashion show there and learned just before walking down the runway that my size 10 feet were going to have to fit into size 8-1/2 shoes. And they did. Ouch.
And then I drove downtown. When did my hometown grow up and become a radiant beauty? Completely without my help, while I ignored it and looked the other way, it has transformed itself into an exquisite jewel, a combination of historic treasure and trendy upscale hipness. (I, on the other hand, have bypassed the trendy, the upscale and the hip entirely.) All of the buildings that I remember from my childhood and dream about — the ones I shopped in, went to the movies in, sat at the soda fountain in, when I was allowed by my parents the thrill of riding the bus ‘downtown’ from the suburbs with my older cousin, Linda — they are STILL THERE, refurbished in period detail, clean and sparkling with love and care. The past is not just honored there, it is cherished. I am so proud.
Somehow this past week, something has happened. Something magical, and healing. I don’t feel trapped by my hometown any more — I am in love with it, as it is, and as I remember it. Maybe I always have been.