This fall I am returning to my hometown for a visit. I haven’t been there in well over a decade. This decision feels more like a biological imperative, as if not returning would be unwise, even risky. Maybe all I need to do is make contact with the ground I grew up on.
Not that I should be living there—I wouldn’t even be welcome. Your hometown is your birthright; when you leave it, you break a promise. Never again will you have free access. While you were gone, countless changes occurred and because you weren’t there, the changes are not a part of you. The town managed fine in your absence and now you are nothing but a tourist.
I left Burlington Vermont right after college, eager for the anonymity waiting for me anywhere else. Fame, romance—who knew what might happen? At the very least, I wanted hints of danger, some mischief to call my own. I knew I would make mistakes, suffer a few bruises, and I was ready for them. I don’t remember giving my hometown any last looks from the bus window. I don’t recall the sadness, only the exhilaration.
Over time, I did find some of what I was after. Several of my decisions were unwise and I will not tell you that I don’t regret them. What does feel absolutely right is the place I now call home. Most of us, by chance or choice, wind up living in a place we like. Our hometown is in our genes, but the town we choose is the town we belong in. For any number of reasons, the conditions suit us and we take root.
My mother’s life resonated with her environment, molecules in her body corresponding with molecules in the flora and fauna around her. In the womb, I too resonated with her world and when I was born this world became mine. I was a new resident, instantly accepted and approved. I had unconditional love from the ground up.
Which is why returning for a visit—especially after so many years—isn’t easy. I know that nearly everything will be unfamiliar, that the houses will be smaller, the roads shorter; that buildings and trees and fields will be missing altogether; that the dirt path I traveled to the beach will exist only in my mind. I will not be able to find my way around and the more places I go the more puzzled I’ll become, and as I move through this town I’ve lost, bits of my youth will keep skirting away: golden birch woods, painted lake turtles, long rows of icicles shining in the sun; the taste of the tiny strawberries that grew beside the railroad tracks; the leopard frogs that jumped ahead of me when I walked through tall wet grass; the clean cotton smell of my boyfriend’s shirt collar; the hay loft we found one day, the dust motes floating in its wan light.
These things happened to me. From here, I can see them clearly, can remember each path and tree, can smell the lilacs and the wet fall leaves. When I revisit my hometown, I’m not sure I was ever there at all.