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You Cant Go Home Again

by Jennifer Garner

February 9,2010

The flat horizon stretches out in front of me, broken only by the rhythmic thumping of the road patches under my wheels and marked by the undulating wave of telephone poles clicking by alongside my window. The empty fields are gleaned of corn and soybeans and the black soil lies undisturbed with a powdered sugar dusting of snow on top. I am driving to see my grandmother in my birth state of Illinois. I remember traveling this lonely stretch of road as a child in the back seat over the flat 25 miles from my other grandmother’s house to hers. We made this drive twice a year, at Christmas and in the summer, when we would come back from North Carolina to visit family.

My parents decided to leave their small hometown in central Illinois and strike out for better prospects in Greensboro in 1978. So while I say I grew up in the South, I can’t really claim to be from here. My people hark from the wide-open plains with the piercing wind, the blinding snow and the flat fields of America’s heartland. While I grew up with grits and sweet tea, my roots lie in the land of tall corn and Honest Abe Lincoln. Even though I only lived in the Midwest until I was 8, I still feel there is something of a sense of belonging to that distant community.

I returned in December for the wedding of a cousin and even though I had been gone 30 years, people knew who I was. They know that I am Margaret’s daughter, the one who lives in London, and that I am part of the greater set of descendants of the postman’s 7 children. As we file into the family pew in church I am aware that these people know that I belong here, even if I don’t remember their names. The little church that my grandparents helped to build is draped in evergreen and the candles flicker against the golden wood of the altar restored by my uncle. The weak winter sun filters down through the stain glass window.

As I listen to my young cousin say his vows, I think of how his parents got married in this church, that my parents were married here 42 years ago, that my grandparents’ funeral masses were said here and that I was baptized here. All these family ceremonies took place under the same crucifix, followed by the ringing of the same bells. I can feel the sense of belonging and ritual in which we all find comfort, security and a sense of place. Those long ago pioneers, German immigrants and displaced Native Americans from which I hail farmed this land. Their legacy remains in the soil and their memories swirling among the howling prairie winds.

While my mother did not want to move my sister and myself so far away from our grandparents and cousins, she knows that we grew up with opportunities and experiences that we wouldn’t have had in that small Illinois town. While growing up in the South shaped my sense of hospitality and culinary delights, those farmers gave me my sense of hard work and perseverance. Do we all keep a piece of our homeland with us, no matter how far away we travel?

When I walk the streets of London and crowd my way onto the bus, I join the other harried commuters and avoid eye contact, speaking to no one. No one in my block of flats knows my name, where I’m from or who my people are. While I love London and my life here, I don’t have a feeling that I belong to this city’s past. There is no visceral connection with a long line of memories or shared history. 

I disagree with Wolfe; you don’t have to go home again. I think that a little piece of our original home is always with us, even if you only go there for weddings and funerals now. Maybe you can never live there again in the same way but I maintain that you don’t have to; it is with you, as much a part of you as your DNA. We all remember the road back to the town of our childhood.

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