In search of a sense of place
“You will always be a come-here.”
One of the first things anybody told me when I moved to a farm outside an old country town was that I would never be truly accepted. The real natives – the families whose last names take up a whole page in a phone book no thicker than a magazine – would never really embrace me. I would always be considered an outsider, an interloper, a “come-here.”
I heard it a lot, even from my in-laws who still felt like “come-heres” after 40 years. My husband’s grandfather, a textile mill executive then living in New Orleans, bought the farm as a weekend place in the 1950s. It soon passed into the hands of his daughter and son-in-law – my husband’s parents. They raised seven children here. They ran a dairy farm and milking equipment business that serviced other farmers all over the area. They were original members of the local country club (my husband and his brothers were conscripted to haul off stumps to make way for the golf course), the skeet club, the private school and the Catholic Church. They belonged to social and civic organizations. My father-in-law even ran for city council once.
And yet, they would warn me with a chuckle – and maybe the tiniest hint of resentment – they were still considered come-heres.
I don’t recall caring about being a come-here when I arrived from Atlanta in 1992. A soft landing into my new husband’s large circle of old friends certainly helped. Even if I was an outsider, I was young and childless and too busy partying with our friends to notice.
But more than that, I think I have always felt like a come-here for one reason or another. I felt it as far back as the north Alabama aerospace boomtown where my south Alabama parents started a family after college. Even then, I was aware of being a little different. My friends’ mothers stayed home and played bridge. My mother taught high school math. My friends attended church on Sunday and made crosses out of popsicle sticks at vacation bible school. My parents, at least at that stage of their life, did not attend church and questioned the existence of God. That would later change, but at the time, even a 7-year-old girl could figure out that there weren’t too many agnostics walking around Decatur, Alabama, in 1969.
There weren’t many in the rural Virginia town where we moved when I was 8, either. Among the few things I remember about that year are working a year ahead of my class in math because I had transferred from a far superior elementary school, and an uncomfortable teacher-parent flap over some assignment that put me on spot over my family’s lack of church attendance. (Let’s just say I learned about the constitutional separation of church and state earlier than most students.) There were moments of happiness – our first big snow, camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains – but mostly I think of our family as being miserable and lonely in Virginia, far from home and surrounded by people who were not like us. People who said “hoose” instead of “house.” Yankees, as far as we were concerned. My dad tells a about a co-worker in Virginia, asking him how he liked living in the South. He replied, “I’ll let you know when I get back there.”
When we did get back, we temporarily settled in an apartment complex in the suburbs of Birmingham. We were still come-heres, but so were most of the neighbors. There were New York Italians next door and Lebanese immigrants across the hall. My best friend in the complex, a military brat, was probably the first Jewish person I ever knew.
I lived in Birmingham from the age of 9 until I left for college at 17. After graduation, I moved around the state working for a couple of newspapers and then a magazine in Atlanta. Ironically, my first job was back in my birthplace, in Decatur, but I no longer felt the same connection. It was just a place where I had a job, a place I lived, as were the other places where my work took me. Birmingham was home.
And I have clung to that idea all these years. Perhaps, I have begun to think, a bit too stubbornly. The truth is, I’ve now lived in this small Louisiana town more than twice as long as I ever lived in the place I call “home.” The even tougher truth is that the place I carry with me in that golden picture frame is gone. Yes, my parents are still in Birmingham – and I can always find a piece of home wherever they are – but they sold the house where I grew up years ago. Only one of my four sisters remains in the city. The rest are spread out as far away as Miami. The sweet, unpretentious suburb where I spent my youth is now overpriced and a little too full of itself. (A retail development called SoHo? Spare me.) The place I remember no longer exists, and the place that exists no longer remembers me.
So lately I have been re-thinking my concept of “home.” That probably sounds absurd coming from someone who has lived in the same place for 22 years and has no plans to go anywhere else. Yet, until recently, a part of me has always denied that I really belong here. Home was somewhere else. But slowly, I am realizing that the only person in this town who has ever made me feel like a “come-here” is me. Maybe it was me who has chosen the role of outsider from the very beginning.
This summer, I attended the wedding of a friend’s daughter at the local Methodist church. After rushing in at the last minute (as usual), I had to squeeze into a spot on the last pew. From this vantage point looking across the whole church, it dawned on me that I knew nearly everyone in attendance. To my right sat our neighbors from down the highway. On my left, one of Harvey’s childhood friends. In front of me was another family from my children’s school. Across the aisle, my son’s teacher. At that moment, I did not feel like a come-here. I felt like a from-here.
And to my pleasant surprise, it felt good.