Sunday, August 28, 2005


Home. For many years that was a very difficult word for me to define. In my 26 years, I've lived in some 20 different buildings in eight different cities and towns of three different states. At one point, I even spent two months living out of a Ford pickup on a cross-country ramble. There have been few constants in my life, but one of them is a modest two-story house on a quiet street of old homes and older residents in St. Albans, West Virginia.

The house is that of my grandparents', and it's been theirs for over 50 years. It's three blocks from the Kanawha River and just two from the C&O mainline. As a boy, I would run to the corner with the whistle of every passing train. Even now, sometimes I still do. I've lived in that house, and for years it was my second home as Mom and I bounced around the Kanawha Valley. I did a lot of growing up in that house, those endless days of long-gone youth with Nickelodean on the cabinet television, Legos on the floor, Grandma busy in the kitchen, and the endless wonders of Grandpa's shop just steps away, always waiting to be discovered when he got home from work.

But that was 20 years ago, and while there are days that I long to go back to it, all that remains is the snapshot in my mind. Grandpa's retired, and his shop isn't quite as big, nor quite as mysterious, as it was then. The Legos are long packed away, there's a new TV and it rarely lingers on Nickelodean, and the room where I sat with them has been remodeled. Grandma is still busy in the kitchen, although she has Grandpa to help her now. When I can find the time to stop, to let my body and mind come ever-so-briefly to rest on the couch in the den, when my breath comes slowly and the room begins to fade away, that's when I again find something that's always been there.

At Grandma's and Grandpa's, it doesn't matter if we get that month's issue out on time. It doesn't matter how well I do on the GRE or how well my words go together on the page. It doesn't matter whether I get the job, sell the story or get the shot. There, what the rest of the world thinks of me ceases to matter. I am safe, content, and comfortable. There, I am loved unconditionally simply for being who I am. The constancy of the place and the people in it help make those feelings real to me.

I went home this weekend, my last trip before leaving the country. It was all there. I hadn't been there more than five minutes, and it was all still there: the comfort, the security, the peace. Grandma fussing to get me something to eat before Grandpa had even made it in from the den to shake my hand. We had the same sumptutious meals that I've been having there all my life, the same mountains of food and cooler full of leftovers. The same card game, hot showers and soft bed with crisp, clean sheets. Timeless.

There were the same difficulties, too. When I was younger, I used to brag about all the different Christmases and birthdays I got to have with all my different families. As the novelty of that wore with age, I came to realize that I could never have all my loved ones around me at the same time, and in the same place. Always there was somewhere else to go, someone else to see.

Dad has lived in St. Albans for a while now, too, along with his wife Jane, and her daughter and family just across the street. I haven't lived with Dad since I was six months old, and he's moved often, so his house doesn't call me home like Grandma's and Grandpa's does. But he's my dad, and I want to be at home with him, too. But the weekend visits are never long enough to pack everything in, and I always I feel like I'm taking time away from one house to be at the other.

Dad had to work late on Saturday, so it was eight o'clock in the evening before I got to see him. He was with Jane and their two granddaughters, eating a late dinner at Shoney's. Earlier, I had taken photos of Jane's bluegrass band for the cover of their upcoming CD. In the interim, I got to visit another place in St. Albans that calls me home almost as strongly as Grandma's house.

I learned to count on the 100-car coal trains passing through St. Albans everyday on the C&O mainline. Along it my boyhood sense of wonder was born, and to it I always return when I am home. It's home, too. There, I can always have that sense of wonder rekindled, even if just for that fleeting moment when the first flicker of headlight appears on the horizon. Staring down those tracks that I've been staring down all my life, I wondered how long it would be before I stared down them again. A season? A year? Longer? What will have changed? What will still be the same?

If I could, I'd stop it all. I'd stop it and hold it and make it just the same for whenever I return. How I wish I could! But to be is to be witness to change, and we can only do that in one place at a time. My path will take me far from home, and it will change while I am gone, just as I will change while I am away from it. Even now, we both change between my visits, but the time and distance before us make it all the more poignant. The goodbyes were long today, first at Dad's, then at Grandma's and Grandpa's. I was glad my uncle Steve and aunt Kim had joined us for Sunday dinner. Leaving was still hard, though.

It all made for a very melancholy 4-1/2 hour drive home, which finished fittingly with one of those vibrant, lingering, make-you-cry Ohio sunsets just as I got back to Cleveland. When I walked into the apartment, though, there was an email from Mo waiting, and my downcast heart turned back toward the sky. She reminded me of why goodbyes are such important parts of relationships. "Good-byes only help you to appreciate those you love and remind you how important they are to you. This way, you never take advantage of them because time with them is so precious." Looking back at the weekend, I remembered how much I tried to drink in every conversation, every movement, every look, word, touch, smell and taste, trying to savor and save up every bit to carry me through until I can return.

The long goodbyes will continue next week with a good friend, with my stepdad and his family, and most of all with Mom. Tonight I've found a little peace, though. It's not unlike the peace I found ever so briefly last night, when, driving along the tracks between Dad's and Grandma's with the windows down on a warm, foggy, mountain summer night, I caught something in the air that whispered how both of those places are home for me. How home is anywhere I can find what I love. How it's there for me in those tracks stretching through St. Albans. How it's there for me at Grandma's, and at Dad's, too. How it's out there waiting to be discovered across China, and how, more than any place else, it waits for me in an apartment I've never seen in a small city on the Pacific Coast of northern Japan.

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