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Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Place We Call Home

(Excerpt from “Joys of the Journey: An Offering of Essays”)

“And after long years of spiritual homelessness, of nostalgia, here is that mystic loveliness of childhood again. Here is home. An old thread, long tangled, comes straight again.”

~ Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, (1896-1953)
American Author, “The Yearling”

For most of us, the words “back home” evoke an immediate warm feeling of nostalgia and yearning for that idyllic place of long ago where we started out. On reflection, it seems that life was simpler and easier there in that comfortable spot where everybody knew you by name and you knew them, too. Where people would go out of their way to help you, and you’d do the same.

It’s the place that gave you deep roots by virtue of an overriding sense of security from the sustained presence there of your loving family and earliest friends. Your hometown– where you’ll always belong and be welcomed as one of its own.

When I think of my hometown in the Midwest, I envision not only my principal abode but, in addition, two other treasured locations within my state which also mean home to me. A kaleidoscope of images from my childhood comes to mind.

Among these recollections is that of visits to my grandmother’s house in the northern part of the state when I was six or seven years old. The reassuring feeling on entering her home that there was a special kind of grace reserved there for me. I could do no wrong, for I was loved no matter what.

I will never forget those delicious home-baked sugar cookies, still warm from the oven, thoughtfully set out for me on the kitchen table and the tall, freshly-chilled green glass bottles of 7-Up lined up on their sides on the middle shelf of the refrigerator, awaiting my arrival.

Still vividly with me today is the sensation of warmth on my face from the sunshine streaming in the windows of that little kitchen and the unmistakable fragrance of petunias, my grandmother’s favorite, in the white wooden planters on the back porch steps.

I can still see and hear so clearly in my mind’s eye the neighbors who left their back doors unlocked in anticipation of my visit, their ready smiles and laughter and the kindnesses they showed me. I remember in particular one older lady who lived two doors down the street who brought out treasured dolls from her own childhood, long packed away in her attic, for me to see and enjoy, knowing how much I myself loved dolls.

I recall, on trips through the countryside, the sight of corn fields and new-mown hay made into rectangular bales, and horses, cattle, flocks of chickens, silos, windmills and barns, on whose sides were painted advertisements, such as Mail Pouch Tobacco, the little series of signs with pithy sayings by Burma Shave along the road, and sturdy farmhouses in the distance.

My heart is warmed by thoughts of covered bridges, sycamore trees along river edges, beech trees with their graceful branches and light gray bark, often with initials and a heart carved in.

Robins, blue jays, black crows,
And, once in a while, a soaring hawk.
Roadside picnic tables, Amish buggies,
The Amish women with their naturally pink complexions,
Wearing sheer white bonnets, stark black dresses,
And the men with long black beards.

Back then, we always experienced four distinct seasons— green, fragrant springs, sunny, blooming summers, hazy, smoky autumns and cold, snowy winters.

Birdcalls in the early spring morning,
The low cooing sound of mourning
Doves right before a rainstorm,
Early wildflowers–May apples, Dutchman’s breeches, Jack-in-the-pulpit,
Crocuses, hyacinths, daffodils, tulips.
Apple trees bedecked with
White or pink blossoms.
Deep rose-colored peonies, royal purple iris.

Excited Little Leaguers, proudly sporting new team uniforms, a shade too large in size, with matching baseball caps, supervised by their equally-proud parents.

In the summer, we’d attend musicals at night in the open air at a local theatron, drive-ins for root beer floats, snow cones and hamburgers, and those with outdoor movies. The whirring of lawn mowers in the neighbors’ yard, and the voices and laughter of children in the distance, punctuated with the excited barking of dogs.

Vacations were spent at a lake in the northern part of the state. Seemingly endless days of brilliant sunshine and vibrant blue skies. The sight of a turtle lazily sleeping on an old tire, which was being used as a bumper around a post on the pier.

The sound of outboard motors on boats. Watching my grandfather setting out for a long day of fishing on the lake. Catching blue gills with a night crawler and bamboo fishing pole off the end of the pier and minnows with a seine along the shore.

On a summer evening, the chirping of the crickets, and the fireflies, providing twinkling light shows, that we caught and collected in glass jars with air holes punched in the metal tops. Twinkling stars in the night sky that seemed to be so close you could almost touch them and, sometimes, a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis far to the north.

In the early fall, a visit to the State Fair, with its livestock displayed in the Exposition Buildings. The odoriferous pig barn made pleasantly acceptable by baby piglets’ endearing presence. Pink cotton candy and long, colored flat strips of taffy in a variety of flavors. Fruit and vegetable stands, bounteous with ears of corn, green beans, zucchini squash, and the ever-present delectable homegrown tomatoes.

And then, soon enough, the fresh start of the school year, with new shoes, new classes, new teachers, new notebooks, pencils, Prang or Crayola crayons with pristine, unblunted tips, and jars of creamy white paste with its familiar aroma and brush inside the top. The welcome sight of my mother waiting to hear all my news when I’d return from classes each day and the sound of her soft voice.

I can still remember the pungent smell of bonfires from burning leaves in the distance. Grade school days when the teacher would regale us with James Whitcomb Riley’s poems, such as “When the Frost is on the Punkin” and “Little Orphant Annie,” and my father reading aloud “Injun Summer,” by John T. McCutcheon, printed each fall in the Chicago Tribune.

Spectacular colors of the leaves were at their best on back road trips through Brown County. Detours and hills in the distance. Roadsides trimmed with goldenrod, milkweed pods with feathery, floating seeds, pawpaw trees with their unique fruit–the Indiana banana–and Queen Anne’s Lace. Squirrels and chipmunks busily gathering nuts and acorns.

Pumpkins and jack-o-lanterns, and cornstalks as witches’ brooms on doorways inviting trick-or-treaters. Polished apples of every hue and type—Grimes Golden, Northern Spy, Red Delicious, and Winesap—and bottles of cider for sale in the old orchard showroom.

Deep white snowfalls bringing the closing of school, building snowmen, sledding down the hills, and nighttimes of restful silence.

Undoubtedly, almost all Americans have comparable heartfelt memories of their hometowns, because the basic constituents of our communities are essentially the same. We all cherish the familiar places, the restaurant with the best cherry pie in the world, the gas station with the trustworthy mechanic, the baseball diamond on a Saturday night, grocery store, church, post office, corner drugstore, with its fascinating array of merchandise, including, for children, candy bars, toys, comic books, and board games.

Most of us share common experiences from our schooldays, of friends, spelling bees, marching bands, football victories, and the year’s-end of classes with delightful prospect of a long summer vacation ahead.

Above it all are the special people of our hometowns with their innate goodness, many long-passed away now but living on in our hearts forever.

For those whose childhood memories are not as vivid or pleasant as the ones I have described, the good news is you haven’t missed out. Memory is a renewable resource. You can still have an abundance of comforting reflections from your life, because all of us are constantly creating these as long as we live, wherever we are.

Everything in life ultimately becomes a memory, but that is no cause for sadness, because once something becomes a memory, it is ever-new and with us always.

What wonderful experiences are you having today that you will look back on tomorrow with fondness? Seize the moments and capture the memories, because life is both fleeting and good.

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