There was definitely a time in my life when I didn’t see the value in staying put. When I was in high school, I loved New Orleans, but I – like most high schoolers anywhere – was starving for new experiences, new landscapes, new friends, new foods. Mid-Missouri didn’t sound that exciting, true, but at least it was somewhere else. And so, 15 years ago, I eagerly waved goodbye to my favorite coffee shop and all of my high school friends and the shotgun duplex on Toulouse Street where I lived with my mom, and I packed up 17 years worth of paperbacks and flannel pajama pants and snapshots and ticket stubs and probably more than 20 pairs of shoes, and I left.
Now, having been gone for 10 years and home for more than five, I take great comfort in the continuity I used to resent. I got an iced coffee on Tuesday from the same coffee shop I went to almost every day after middle school, I had lunch Wednesday with a friend I’ve known since third grade and I frequently walk with my daughters past my old house on Toulouse Street. It is a little strange pushing a stroller past the same steps I walked down in a prom dress; past the porch where I lingered with friends on dozens of humid nights, waving around a clove cigarette and feeling impossibly cool; past the curb that I drove over and popped two tires on my mom’s car the day after passing my driver’s test. But overall, I like it. It makes me feel sort of cozy.
In a burst of synchronicity, just weeks after my daughter learned to ride a bike, she started first grade at Morris Jeff Community School’s new campus, the old Holy Rosary – which is where I learned how to ride a bike.
Now every single school morning is a complete trip back in time.
I park in front of the house where, back in 1987, a little girl named Megan used to live with her grandparents. The kids at school teased her because she had freckles and a lisp and an odd habit of sucking on her fingers until they had a strange, sweet scent and crinkled like tissue paper, but she was always nice to me. Her grandparents, I remember thinking, were annoyingly overprotective – she was never allowed to go anywhere with me – but she had every Milton Bradley game ever made and they kept lots of freezer pops on hand, which I loved even though they invariably made me cough. I spent many hours in her upstairs bedroom playing Cootie and Don’t Break the Ice and eating Fla-Vor-Ice pops and coughing and watching her suck her fingers.
After we walk past Megan’s old house, we pass what’s now a bed-and-breakfast with a lush garden that spills over onto the sidewalk – but back in 1987, there used to be a patch of four-leaf clovers there. I have no idea what caused that particular mutation to happen in that particular spot, but I do know that almost every day I would go pick a fresh four-leaf clover from the patch and tuck it into my Trapper Keeper for good luck. When my best friend’s mom was in the hospital having a baby, I brought a four-leaf clover to school for her, and when another friend had to move to California suddenly, I sent her off with one, too.
Then, just before we arrive at school, we walk past the historic house at Moss and Grand Route St. John. It is under construction now with a plaque up detailing its history, but the only history I know about the place is that a dog named Tara used to vigilantly guard the yard, lunging at the fence and snarling when I would pass. If I was on foot, I would run past Tara’s yard; if I was on my bike, I would stand up and pump the pedals frantically until I was past. I can still remember the exhilaration of being scared – behind a sturdy fence, Tara was never a real threat, but it was always exciting to mentally exaggerate the danger just to feel my heart racing.
And then we’re in the school gates, and Ruby is taking her seat on the spot where I scraped my elbows and knees and hands more times than I can even remember.
There is something so sweetly compelling about watching her memories form in the same place at the same age. Remembering Megan makes me realize how much compassion, discrimination and shallowness Ruby is capable of. Remembering the four-leaf clovers I so earnestly gave to my friends makes me appreciate and respect how strongly she must believe in both magic and love.
Remembering the shivery thrill of sprinting past the barking dog confirms to me that I’m doing the right thing by giving Ruby little bits of independence – every time I made it safely past the yard, I always had a surge of pride, and I feel like that sort of mock exaggerated terror followed by triumph is a crucial part of childhood development, one that I would be depriving Ruby of if I were there to hold her hand past the yard of every literal or figurative scary dog.
I know that one day, in another dozen years, Ruby herself will be weary of this city and ready for real thrills, real independence, and I’ll watch her pack up her teenage life into boxes and take off for parts unknown. I know for certain that I’ll cry; I know for certain that I’ll be happy for her. I know that I’ll want her to stay; I know that I will want her to go – and honestly, I hope, it will be more of the latter.
After all, I’m happy that I left. Getting away from the city where I grew up was necessary and I don’t regret my time away. But I’m even happier, every day, that I came back.