This is going to be somewhat of a valedictory post. A summation of the past and a look to the future. And like most valedictory addresses, it will probably be too long…
This blog has served me well during a difficult chapter of my life. I started this blog when my Mother was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and I had a certain distance from the past. The humor and detachment came easily to me. I had not been “home” for a very long time for more than the obligatory few hours at Christmastime. I had the distance that is necessary for perspective.
That all unexpectedly changed over the last two or three years. I had to go home again. The humor became more difficult to find and the past seemed much closer than it had for years…
When I look back on this blog, I can see a journey. Socrates once stated, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Well, based on this theory, mine is definitely worth living because I have examined the hell out of it for the last few years on this blog. It wasn’t always pretty and I cringe at some of it, but it was honest.
It was truly how I saw things at a certain time and place.
Looking back on this blog, I can see the struggle to deal with reconciling people and places with how I remember them and how others do. I lost a few friends along the way and made some people very mad. I can see the evidence of depression during some phases of the journey. But I am grateful that I made a few people laugh….
And I would not change one damn thing.
This was my journey “home”. A journey home to a difficult family and a difficult place. A journey to and through a difficult time.
And I learned an important fact. It may be a cliche, but “You can’t go home again.”
There are a lot of reasons for this. I think the main one is that, at least for me, home is a changeable concept. It’s not the place I was born, the town I grew up in or where I came from.
It is where I am now- with my partner, my love and my family of choice. It’s a house in Sunset Hills in Greensboro, NC. A place in my soul where I live in comfort and safety. I am more than ever aware that the “home” place may change over time. For now, it is that house in Sunset Hills in Greensboro, NC where we live a very happy life. I like to think it always will be that, but who knows? Someday it may be somewhere else, but the constant thing that makes it a home is being with someone you love. Feeling loved and feeling safe.
Based on that theory, it should have been easy to do home to Danville. I still have family and friends there that I love. But it isn’t “home” and hasn’t been for a very long time. When I was forced to deal with my hometown on a regular basis, it was not a good experience. It depressed me in ways those who still live there will never understand….
It also challenged my identity. I’m a pretty free and easy, openly Gay man in Greensboro. Going back to Danville, I was immediately reminded of a time and place where this was not the case. I remembered the closeted, fearful young Gay boy I once was and was challenged to reconcile the two….
I was older now. Heavier, but more self assured. I’ve been to London, Paris, South Africa and all over the U.S. Going “home” to Danville was the strangest journey…
Sometimes, you have to be away, have a certain distance to have a different view from those who live in a place day by day in your old hometown. It surprised me how hard it was when you come back to your past and realize others see it as their present….
And memories can be colored by time so that things may not be exactly as we remember them…
First of all, it’s always difficult to have change forced upon you. I was forced to go home. I didn’t want to do it. I knew I was treading on dangerous ground. But my Mother had come home to die.
It’s difficult to deal with going home when you know it’s to deal with the death of a parent. It changes the perspective and makes everything much more real. It intensifies the feelings. It makes you see things and doubt things you would never have imagined doubting or questioned your perspective of otherwise.
It makes you look back….
And it makes you deal with the present in surprising ways….
And I was immediately struck by how different it all was from how I remembered it….
The town I grew up in had an economy based on tobacco and textiles. Both industries are as gone with the wind as the Civil War. And with the loss of these industries, the town seemed to have lost its identity. It was no longer “The World’s Best Tobacco Market” or “The Home of Dan River Mills.” These industries had been the foundation of a thriving middle class. That was all gone too….
I was struck by how a pretty little town had become ugly and bare. They were tearing down the mills and selling the hundred year old bricks and old growth wood flooring to “reclamation” companies for use in new construction by rich people. They were throwing up corrugated steel and aluminum buildings in the place of historic structures.
I hate to say it, but there was an obvious leadership vacuum. Everyone younger and educated got out as fast as they could. This did not leave much of a leadership class….
I was struck by the acceptance of casual racism as it seemed everyone who still lived there seemed to need to blame someone else for their troubles. They saw everything as Obama’s fault or the fault of giving too much to “them” so they didn’t have to work. Even though there were no jobs….
I was struck by the loss of thriving local restaurants and businesses and the domination of chain restaurants and stores that obscured what was left of the uniqueness of the town….
I was stuck by how much it had changed and it pained me…
I didn’t recognize the place I was born…
And I was struck by the overall hopelessness of the remaining people and their need to justify why they were still there. Like there was a judgement awaiting them for staying. They closed ranks and hung to each other like the steerage passengers on the Titanic who didn’t get a place in the lifeboats and didn’t quite know why. They defended their choices because they had to to survive and live with their choices….
I was struck by the coarseness….The hardness.
And I was stuck by the kindness, graciousness and gentility of some old friends and members of the Old Guard. Mainly older members of the community who made me still feel at home with their acceptance and graciousness that made me proud to still be a Virginian by birth.
And I was struck by having to deal with my family again.
My family, as it remains, is small. It was once much larger, but we lost so many families members in the 1980’s that I once joked we paid for wing on Townes Funeral Home.
I had to deal with my sister….
I’ll be honest, as I see it, we had never bonded while we were growing up. I am four years older, which makes a difference when you are young and through High School. I was at college before she came to my High School. And High School is very important in small Southern towns.
The Friday Night Lights burned bright over Christopher Stadium at George Washington High School for the Football games that are a rite of passage in the South. But I was already a “boy in the band” ghost, away at Washington and Lee University, when my sister entered the spotlight in her sequined majorette uniform.
It was always her town more than mine…..I knew even then I truly belonged somewhere else….
And we never bonded at home. It was a house too filled with fights, thwarted dreams and frustrations that had to be kept from the neighbors at all costs. It was a house where my Father’s temper was a land mine to be carefully avoided or manipulated to one’s own advantage. It was a house where we were all passengers on an American Titanic fighting for our own places in the First Class lifeboats. And it was also the “Mad Men” era facing the changing times. We all just tried to survive as best we could. There wasn’t time to make friends. It makes me think Familial Darwinism is a new concept that is worth studying….
Then, we had spent 25 years only seeing each other at Christmas for a few hours, then going back to our own lives. Twenty-Five years of shallow conversations and hidden truths. Twenty Five years of avoiding old land mines left over from previous wars.
You really can’t go home again.
And if you do, you have to play by their rules. That was the hardest part for me. I am still very rule and structure oriented. I did not recognize the place I was forced back into…I knew my rules, but was hesitant to see if they still applied. I feared I was too formal and old school Virginia….It was like landing in a foreign country without a Rough Guide.
I like to think we all have an imaginary soundtrack to our lives. I try to make mine Cole Porter and the Gershwins as sung by Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. My sister’s seems to be Journey, Bon Jovi, Boston and a touch of Loretta Lynn. Not a compatible combination….
For functions, I believe in sterling silver forks and china plates. My sister is disposable plastic and paper plates.
I love old things and tradition, she loves the here and now.
I believe in formal dining rooms and proper situational manners, she is great rooms and casual lifestyles.
I believe in formality and social rules. She is anything goes….
I won’t judge which of us is right. At least not in public….At least not now…
And I’m not sure which of us is adopted…..
So, it was all bound to explode….
We managed to get through the my Mother’s prolonged death. We were civil and kind to each other. We practiced admirable degrees of give and take on both sides. Much to my regret, I even gave in on the funeral home choice- which is a whole different blog to follow. We compromised. We got through it. I don’t think either of us was happy with how it all went, but we got through it….
Then we had the fight from hell. We got down and dirty and mean in the way that only families can. The scary thing to me is it seemed to energize her. It exhausted me.
It made me want to go back to my real home and get away from that place I grew up in and the family I left there….
It made me want to put up walls and fill the moat….It made me want to lock myself in my castle and defend it against all comers.
That’s when I realized “you can’t go home again”…..
Funerals do seem to lead to drama. People seem to get so emotionally tired from the process and trying to figure out what is expected and what is the “right”thing to do, that they eventually crack and have to tell the truth. It’s an escape valve. And someone being dead is a great rationale to break confidences, let your hair down and all it as you see it.
Now, what I hope to get back to doing is telling the truth as I see it…
From a respectful distance and with a revised perspective.
It may take some more time and some more distance, but I will be back…
I’ll get the time and distance to remember a truly Southern Gothic Life….
And tell it as I see it….