Do you have a hometown? When someone asks where you’re from, are you able to tell them? Or do you mumble something like, “I’ve lived in a lot of places?” I do that.
According to the census bureau, less than 1/3 of the people in western states live where they were born. My wife comes from Rochester, NY. I was born in Poughkeepsie. We met in San Francisco. That seems to be the norm out here. I had lived in five cities and gone to six schools by the time I finished high school, so I can answer,”Where are you from?” in a lot of ways.
Childhood memories are layered in ways that reminds me of geographical strata. Each place, school, and time had its own feeling tone. Recalling those times sometimes seems like gazing at ancient pictographs on differing layers of rock.
A visit to Mary’s family in Rochester last week was like visiting earlier layers. The sense of place in western New York is much like where I grew up. The feel of the air, the look of the sky, the wind through the trees, the trees themselves, are now foreign but deeply known at the same time. Maybe the answer to my question is,”I am from all the places I’ve ever lived.”
Old factory towns like Rochester have a strong sense of communal past. There is more “home” in some towns than in others. In the local paper, I came upon the smiling face of a handsome young man in the obituary section. Charles “Dutch” Lydon died on June 1st at the age of 89. He won five bronze stars in combat in the Pacific in WWII, was an “avid” bowler and golfer, and “a proud Kodak employee for 30 years.” He is survived by children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Tom Brokaw must have been thinking of people like Dutch when he coined the name, “greatest generation.”
I don’t think my parents generation was great just because they were superior beings. I believe the times demanded and fostered their greatness. Men like Dutch Lydon knew where they were from, knew what that meant, and believed in it. Now there is no more Kodak to be proud of. Silent factory chimneys stand like tombstones for that way of life.
Not that smoke and soot were good for you, or that Kodak didn’t screw up in the end and screw its workers. Not that things were so good if you weren’t a white hetrosexual male. Not that my generation didn’t rebel against all that. It’s just that from our current perspective, we can see things of value we lost when this way of life came to an end.
A sense of belonging and community, for one thing. Friends and family you can count on were cited as key factors in a recent survey that named the ten happiest countries in the world. Do I even need to say that the United States failed to make the cut?
Sense of community is an impression, an imagining, a gut feeling, but it makes a profound difference. Walking along the Lake Ontario shore, we stopped to admire a fine old brick building, a public bathhouse, with half a dozen tennis courts sheltered from the wind in an enclosed courtyard. The bandstand in the park was under renovation, as was the carousel with its hand-painted animals. This is a city that doesn’t just pay lip service to words like “community.” A cop on patrol passed us with a smile and a “Good morning,” because, though the park was filled with people, he had nothing more pressing to do.
Many in my generation grew up on Easy Rider and On the Road, filled with wanderlust and a longing for the horizon. Others married their high school sweethearts, anxious to settle down. People I know played it both ways, with differing results. There aren’t any rules of thumb. From the time of the pioneers, California has attracted people looking to reinvent themselves. This is where Norma Jean Mortenson became Marilyn Monroe. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.
It has taken me longer than usual to write this post. I kept putting off hitting the “Publish” button in hopes of reaching some kind of conclusion. Doesn’t seem likely at this point. Just a number of questions without any clear cut answers.
What does it mean to have a hometown, or maybe the question is really, how does a “town” become “home?” What does it mean to have a home, to “feel at home?” What does it mean to be from someplace? “You can’t go home again,” Thomas Wolfe famously said. Nobody asks the flip-side question, which is whether we ever really leave?
I’d love to hear any thoughts you have along these lines.