It’s been nearly 10 years since I left the place I still often refer to as “home” when far away.
Separated from this strange corner of Wisconsin by several continents and an ocean, it’s easy to pine for the cool summer breezes and beautiful fall colors of this place. People say to write what you know. Northern Wisconsin has always seemed like a far surer bet than trying to write about China or India or anywhere else I’ve visited around the globe.
I return every year to the same house, the same diner, the same frozen custard stand and I expect to feel familiar, to feel like I might actually understand the lives and dreams of the people I see around me far better or more accurately than I can the people I meet overseas.
And yet, every year, I drive past the most important landmarks of my childhood–the playgrounds, ponds and football fields where I learned friendship and regret and love and heartbreak—and I feel like a foreigner. In leaving 10 years ago, I solidified my “otherness.” Why, after all, would anyone want to leave paradise? In many ways, to be a true native is expected to always be found in the exact place you’ve always been.
Growing up as a second grade transplant from Texas with a mother who didn’t go to church and didn’t vote Republican, and a father prone to talking about enlightenment and practicing his yoga in semi-public places, I suppose I never did stand much of a chance of fitting in and settling down. I remember growing up feeling sometimes like I was preparing myself simultaneously for two different lives. On one hand, attending Sunday mass with my high school boyfriends, and tagging along with friends for weekends of boating and fishing up at their family cottages, on the other hand attempting to tune out well-meaning paternal lectures about self-actualization with newspapers and history books and dreams of a future life that would require a passport and travel far beyond state lines.
I return every year to a place that I used to think of as changeless. The trees grow taller, the strip malls grow shabbier, and the city government keeps installing confounding new roundabouts, but the same earnest young-old man is still bagging groceries at the last family-owned grocery store in town and the 31 flavors of the day at the custard stand where my sister worked in high school are still the same.
As long as my parents and the one or two friends I have left living in the area are ok, everything is perfect in paradise. Which is perhaps precisely why the place will likely never feel like home again.
I took my father out for his first visit to my favorite diner in town a few weeks ago. Well-worn vinyl booths, carafes of terrible coffee, hash browns peeled, cut and cooked from scratch, blueberry pancakes the size of dinner plates. A waitress across the room caught my eye and we stared at each other for a moment. A cold sweat suddenly crawled up my back. I remembered this woman waiting on our table over a decade ago when I used to come in on cool October mornings with my crosscountry teammates. Now she stood sickly and thin, carrying three platters of omelets with penciled eyebrows and heavy eyeliner ringing her lash-less lids, wearing a scarf tied tightly beneath a beige cap, her brass-colored perm gone.
I didn’t talk to her. The restaurant was busy and we weren’t seated wasn’t in her section. And, if I had, what would I have said? Who was I to her, after all, in comparison to the regulars of the place who’ve been tipping for their mugs of coffee and platters of pancakes every week for the last 30 years?
I tucked a $8 tip on a $18 bill behind my coffee mug and left, wondering if they’d put together a collection for her. I realized that, even if they hadn’t, there was probably a loyal cadre of patrons leaving far more than 50% tips at her tables. We drove home quietly, past rows of tired-looking strip malls.
Growing up I never understood the point of all the supper clubs and fish fries and why on earth anyone would get up and go sit indoors at a church on a perfectly beautiful spring Sunday morning. It wasn’t until I moved away and found and fell out of and found my own tribes again that I came to understand that 99% of belonging to a group is actually being there. It’s about showing up for the fun and the lousy and the downright boring. To be known is to be held accountable. To feel known is to feel home.
I’m not there in my hometown anymore, I’m not there to care or help or share in even the most mundane community experiences such as a bad snowstorm. I feel foreign there because I am. It is a city full of kind-hearted and wonderful people who wouldn’t give up their lives there for anything else in the entire world. Travel and tasting menus would never interest nor satisfy them in the way a quiet breakfast among friends they’ve known for 40 years can. And that is ok, that is beautiful. I just didn’t grow up to be one of them
But I’m learning from their example– to be as present and accountable for my family and friends–for my home–as I possibly can. Which is why we swear every year we won’t do another stressful transatlantic multi-stop family visit only to book a nearly identical itinerary the year after. It’s why we’re driving 8 hours to nowhere Minneapolis to watch a pair of our friends get married and then jumping back on a plane the very next day. It’s why I’ve spent the last few years trying to quell the worst of my anti-joiner tendencies and show up for the things I should whether or not I’d rather be sitting at home in my pjs with a good book. Feeling “home” requires being present for both the big things and the little things and its rare that I truly know which ones are which until long after they’ve changed the course of our relationships.
Enough prattling for now. I have loads of Will photos waiting to be shared. Will eating ice cream. Will playing in a mud puddle. Will trying out my dad’s putter on a putting green. Will picking (and eating!) raw strawberries from my mother’s garden. Will laughing all day long with his beloved grandparents. Whether or not my hometown feels like home to me anymore, I have a feeling it will be one of Will’s favorite places in the entire world for at least several years to come.
Will and his grandfather hanging out on a tractor at a local farm/petting zoo institution. I always knew I had wonderful parents, what I didn’t know until recently was what unspeakably fantastic grandparents they are too.