March 23, 2007

Knowing your place

I often say that my family is half a generation out of Appalachia, which isn't all that far from the truth. I was born in Tucson, Arizona, and I consider myself lucky, because I made it all the way out of the hills.

My Grandma Rose left the Kentucky hill country more than half a century ago, having only an eighth grade education, several children to support, and a penchant for horrible men. One of those men was my grandfather, Enos (who went by the name of 'Red'), and with him she had four children, including my father. My father grew up not in Kentucky, but on Kentucky Street, a grim little corner of Appalachia in sunny Tucson, Arizona.

My father eventually made it out of Kentucky Street. He met and married my mother, and eventually they had me. I grew up in Arizona and Oregon, thousands of miles from Kentucky and worlds away from Kentucky Street. All I know of Appalachia is the ancestral tale of poverty and desperation, malnutrition and teenage brides.

So to me, Appalachia isn't really a place where real people live. It's a place where hillbilly caricatures live, and a place you work your ass off to stay out of. So Twin-Knit's blog has been a source of endless fascination to me. Jennie is a knitter and musicologist who, until recently, was living in rural Appalachia, doing research on traditional music in the region. I've been making my way through her archives in the past few weeks (older posts available here), and am developing a more nuanced perspective on that part of the world for the first time.

Originally from Philly, Jennie recently decided to move home. She posted a lot about both places, about her decision to move, and about coming home. All of which got me thinking about place, the place you're from and what that does to you. And where my place might be.

I find that I miss Arizona. I miss the open sky, grey-green thorny plants, and finding good salsa and tortillas at every single restaurant and grocery store in the city. I miss road runners, horny toads and tumbleweeds. I miss big turquoise jewelry and people who know a double-ll should be pronounced as a 'y.' I miss being warm ten months of the year and seeing thunderstorms that knock down trees and flood streets and slay unwary golfers.

And I miss Oregon. I miss the valley we lived in, surrounded by hills that turned yellow-brown in the summer and forested mountains that stayed green year-round. I miss the hippies, and the coffee shops and bookstores I spent so many hours in. I miss the thrift shop dresses, vintage tweed blazers and clunky shoes I wore. I even miss the rain.

Most of all, I miss walking down a street and feeling connected to places. I enjoy my neighborhood outside Boston, but my first love and my first heartbreak and my first experience with death all happened in another place. Here, I don't walk past something and remember important and formative things that happened in that spot, and so Boston has never actually felt like home to me.

Is that normal? Does it ever go away? Do you build enough memories in a new place to make it feel like home? Or does part of you always miss those other places?

And if you always miss those other places, should you think about going home?


Kristen said...

vHey there, I'm delurking because while I always enjoy your posts, I loved this one. :) I think know what you're getting at. I have found that all my new places just add to the different towns I call "home". They're all home, differently. I got nostalgic recently for the decrepit trailer where we lived in the 70's because those were my David Cassidy years. Hee!

Marge said...

My mother has lived in the suburbs of DC for 30 years, and if you ask her where she is from, to this day she'll say New York City. I'm sure that has something to do with why I was homesick for New York City years before I ever lived there.

Northern VA, where I grew up? I left when I was 15 and never really missed it the way you miss Arizona and Oregon. I was happy to be away. I was really happy when I finally moved to NYC.

I may think back on the places of my childhood with nostalgia, but I never feel called to move there. Ever.

And now I’ve landed in Northern California, and I’ve been surprised to find that I could happily spend the rest of my life here. I was surprised, that is, by how much this place feels like home.

So now I've been out of NYC for almost as long as I lived there, and I still think of the city as home and miss it and think of going back. But really, I'd be pretty happy to stay in California. It’s home now too.

In all, I think going home can mean that you return to where you started, but it can also mean moving to a new place that turns out to feel right. It's like in Jacob Have I Loved, when Sara Louise moves to the mountains and finds her place. Home can be backwards or forwards.

Marge said...

Also, your post reminded me of this song. In the Muppet Movie, Gonzo sings in a very sweet, wistful way.

"I'm Going To Go Back There Someday"

This looks familiar, vaguely familiar,
Almost unreal, yet, it's too soon to feel yet.
Close to my soul, and yet so far away.
I'm going to go back there someday.

Sun rises, night falls, sometimes the sky calls.
Is that a song there, and do I belong there?
I've never been there, but I know the way.
I'm going to go back there someday.

Come and go with me, it's more fun to share,
We'll both be completely at home in midair.
We're flyin', not walkin', on featherless wings.
We can hold onto love like invisible strings.

There's not a word yet for old friends who've just met.
Part heaven, part space, or have I found my place?
You can just visit, but I plan to stay.
I'm going to go back there someday.
I'm going to go back there someday.

Miss T said...

Very nice post.

Kristy said...

Great post. It's strange... I'm starting to think of my home as San Francisco, even though I've never lived there. It's the place we know we'll end up eventually :)

jennie said...

Ariel, I just found your blog. It's a pleasure to know that you found and read my blog, and that it helped you learn more about your family home (also fascinating that your family comes from one of the many Appalachian communities that re-formed out west... most people don't know that appalachian migrants relocated that far away from the mountains).

To add to the story -- I'm actually FROM Virginia (although not the coalfields... I grew up in Central Virginia, along the Blue Ridge). Philly is a home away from home, as were the Appalachian mountains. I completely understand your questioning about place and home -- it's what brought me to the mountains in the first place (other than the music, of course) and it's a major part of my dissertation. It's also something that I spend a lot of time thinking about in my own life, especially now that I've relocated back to Philly (I'm homesick BOTH for the mountains AND for the Philly I left behind a year and a half ago... very dislocating!).

I think you're right -- part of "home" is having memories there (love, heartbreak, death, laughter, etc). Those things never go away and I think we will always miss them. But sometimes, you don't realize how many memories you've built in a new place until you leave it, and then suddenly you've got a new "home." It's a complicated and beautiful thing...

Thanks so much for your post (and sorry for such a long response!)


Rebecca said...

i'm living proof that some people can and do thrive in appalachia. i've left the region several times to pursue education but seem to come back, despite wanting a more cosmopolitan life.

the thing to remember about appalachia is that the same kinds of class systems that you have elsewhere exist in our region as well. there are urban centers in appalachia. there are wealthy, educated people in appalachia, and then there are those "stereotypes" that people trot out when they're making a point of some kind.

i envy your living in az. and boston, too. i love boston and find it infinitely livable. but i never feel out of place here. or really anywhere, unless i can't speak the language. living in appalachia has made me adaptable to any siltation because we have such class/socio-economic differences abutting one another.