What does it mean to return home?
Is there a difference between those of us who left home and those who stayed? To those who left, the sense of home becomes a fleeting memory, a place and time that slowly slips through open fingers like warm water with each returning visit. The worst part is never learning to prepare for the grief, the loss of place and purpose to a former self. As the memories blur with great expectations we start to lose a piece of our identity. If this isn’t what I always thought home was, then what was it? Who was I? Who am I now? The reality, the rude awakening, is that home never really changed. I did. And I realized that on a recent trip home to the midwest.
As the earth releases its mountainous peaks with a great sigh of relief, and lays itself out like a blanket, the Great Plains appear. The smell of pine and dry land gives way to sweet grass and heavy wet air. The vast landscape begs for a turn of the head, as no set of eyes can grasp the waves of grain and big skies in one glance. And on this road, straight as an arrow, we coast all the way home. All the way home.
Going home is remembering the best routes through town, identifying turns by landmarks, turning on autopilot as you settle into the memories of a past life. It’s turning the same door handle you used a thousand times, the olfactory memories firing from the smells of home you can’t quite identify. Once through that doorway, you somehow squeeze yourself, however clumsily, into the lives of those you left.
Dave and I visited a few favorite spots, eating dishes and sipping drinks with new, but familiar, smells and sounds surrounding us. We met up with friends and listened to them tell us that things are “same ‘ol, same ‘ol.” But they were different. They had aged. They had children. They were advancing in their jobs. They had second homes. They were blatantly destroying the nostalgic memories I had of home. How dare they.
In this process of trying to reconfigure the memories in my mind, I grew critical. They all smoke cigarettes. They eat terribly and don’t exercise. They don’t follow the news. They live in small towns. They irritate me. They never left.
They never left.
Things were different. Buildings replaced views of the prairie, hotels were going up in a place I thought no one visited, restaurants (good restaurants) were highlighted in publications, tech companies were moving in. People were proud of the progress. And my pity wasn’t necessary, as these people were genuinely happy.
On our climb back to the mountains we said goodbye to the humidity and hello to the pine trees. Kayaks and mountain bikes were strapped to cars. The mountains were just peaking over the horizon. We were comfortable amongst our people and started to settle back into our routine, in our new home. But when talking about where we live now, compared to where we grew up, we both fumbled over the word “home.” It still doesn’t feel natural.
I realize now, that I was the one who never left. I never left the memories I had etched in my mind, I never let go of my childhood. But most of all, I never let these people mature and create their own lives in our collective home. Although I had physically moved, I never truly left. And everyone else had.
So here’s to the notion of ‘home,’ whether we can ever return or not – physically or emotionally. Here’s to my home: sweetgrass, cigarettes, and all.