A conversation with an old friend from Kiev, a casual comment from a new friend in Singapore, a classic country song…
I have a friend in Singapore who most definitely grew up a city girl, with no experience of the isolated, winding, usually-dirt roads that I grew up walking down and, later, driving on in Oklahoma’s Kiamichi Mountains, and that John Denver sings about in my parents’ beloved adopted home of West Virginia. So I was touched to see her posting on Facebook of her surprise at having been moved almost to tears when listening to “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” And it got me to thinking about those old country roads that I used to be able to drive almost blindfolded, and how for years those roads meant home…but how now, they mostly remind me that I no longer have a place that is home.
Yesterday Helen and I had a long conversation with Sophia Williams (whose book you must buy if you haven’t already as it’s one of the most engrossing autobiographies I’ve ever read). She is ninety now, I think, and she has friends who recently offered to take her back to visit her childhood home of Kiev. “But I don’t want to go back anymore,” she told us emphatically over tea. “It is empty for me. There is nobody there now from my family. To go back, just reminds me that they aren’t there anymore.”
I knew, of course, that her father and mother and stepmother were dead – she is, after all, ninety years old. But what about the rest of the family? “Has everyone else moved away now?” I asked. “Did you all move to America?”
“I have a niece in San Francisco, and one in Boston,” she answered, “and two more…” I don’t remember where the other two lived, but they are no longer in Ukraine. “And all the rest…I outlived.”
So Sophia will never go back to Kiev, now, because she would not be going home. She would be going to a city that has become a mere graveyard, going back only to say hello to ghosts.
And I think I know how she feels, for I find myself every year less eager to pass back through the Kiamichi Mountains I loved as a child. Everyone in my family has died or moved away from Hartshorne and Haileyville, where Pierces and Wilders lived throughout the first eight decades of Oklahoma statehood; the house I grew up in (which was already old when I was young) is still there but no Pierce has lived in it for twenty years now and I doubt anybody still calls it the Pierce house, or has any but the vaguest memories of that house with my family in it. The last time I passed through (having gone hundreds of miles out of my way to do so) I drove through the alley back behind our old garden lot and two-storey garage, to discover that the massive and apparently ageless oak tree that had shaded the entire back yard throughout living memory, had been cut down. And Melissa’s post about that beloved old John Denver song brought home to me something I hadn’t realized before…as I’ m driving down those old country roads, I still feel at home on them; they haven’t changed at all, even for me, because they still are what they always were – roads, journey-spaces, things I passed down, often with company but equally often alone, on my way to some destination. But when I get to the end of them, there’s no home left, because the people are gone. For me, Hartshorne and Haileyville are ghost towns.
And now I have no home, not really. I love West Virginia, but it’s my parents’ home, not mine. I have been all over the world in the years since I left Oklahoma, and I have seen many places I liked and even lived in a couple of them; but I hated New Jersey during my four years at Princeton, and the next two decades were spent in a miserable marriage that left every place I lived, however pleasant in itself, hopelessly entrapped in a locus of mixed pain and poignancy in recollection, where even the memories I love of seeing my children grow up with happiness in early childhood are overshadowed by the ever-lurking knowledge of the scars they carry from the black years, when the misery at the core of my marriage could no longer be hidden from them and their world disintegrated around them.
The last three years, of course, have been in many ways as though the old heaven and the old earth had passed away and as if all creation had been made new as Helen entered my life. Home is now Helen, and wherever she is, I can’t wait to get back to. And yet…yet that’s not the same thing as having a “place I belong,” some spot on the globe that holds my heart. I’ve had Helen to come home to for three years and where she is, is peace; but the place doesn’t matter – if Helen goes back to Dàfēng this summer to visit her family, and I join her a few weeks later, when I step off the train at Dàfēng and see her waiting there I’ll feel just as strongly that I’ve just arrived home as I do right now walking through the door of our rented Sugar Land house – even though I’ve never been to Dàfēng in my life.
I’ve had three happy years in which I could easily have put down roots and memories and bonded with the first place Helen and I have been happy together…but unfortunately I have lived those three years in Houston, a town I cordially detest, a city I moved to only out of economic necessity and where I remain only due to legal constraints upon my custody of my children. Marriage to Helen has been better in three years than marriage to Dessie was bad for seventeen, but still the only reason I am in Houston is that I have five more years of having to deal with the fallout from that catastrophically bad first decision made so many years ago. Houston? Home? I can see China someday being home, but never Houston.
I am, incorrigibly and forever, a country boy. If ever again in this life I find a home to which I can be led, that home will be at the end of a country road. Until then, “Take Me Home, Country Road” will be a song for other people, who enjoy a particular kind of belongingness that is no longer mine to share, and the memory of which is, for me, bittersweet.