Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Home for the Holidays

I have made an honest attempt to find the exact quote from Kurt Vonnegut about the importance of home. As I remember it, Vonnegut noted that no matter where a person moves in life, his real “home” is the place where he was brought up. That’s the emotional center of his universe.

Both my father and I have been wanderers in our lives. Following his mother’s death when he was 18, my father left his home near El Dorado (pronounced “El doh RAY doh), a small Arkansas town (and certainly not Coronado’s famed city of gold), and found his way as a 20-year-old recruit in the Army Air Force to Savannah, Georgia, where he met my mother and “settled down.” He found and created a new family in Savannah. I am not sure whether Savannah became the true center of his universe, however. We never discussed it. I can remember only one trip that we made to El Dorado when I was eight or nine years old, and I don’t remember anything about the town itself. My only memory involves our driving through a small cemetery where my father pointed out his parents’ graves. When we left the cemetery, we didn’t stop to see the town at all. Instead we drove straight to other relatives’ homes in either Mississippi or Louisiana. My father was not much for telling stories of his youth, and he didn’t tell any that day either. (I once considered writing a biography of my parents until I realized that the part about my father would probably, of necessity, be more fiction than fact. I have heard some stories, of course, but they were related by relatives who I would consider to be very impeachable sources.)

At age 18, I too wandered far from my hometown—Savannah, Georgia—leaving for New Haven, Connecticut, to attend college, then settling in various towns in New Jersey. I have returned to Savannah for short visits once or twice a year since then. Yet, if someone asks me where I am from, I will say Savannah, where I spent those early years, much more readily than Glen Rock, New Jersey, where I have lived since my late 20’s.

So the trip that I made with my wife and children to Savannah last week really felt like a return home. My cousins Debbie and Joel Rotkow added to the homecoming feeling by hosting a cousins’ party for some 50 extended family members. They have done that each year in late December for many years now, and each gathering is warm and funny and solidifies the sense of Savannah as my emotional center. It’s where we can tell stories aloud about the crazy cousins who are no longer with us (or simply unable to attend the party) and gossip about those who may be in the same room but out of earshot. We are not just catching up on family news; we are feeling at home.

The cousins from my generation, minus a few who couldn't
make the trip. But, we talked about them anyway.
(photo by Lynn Levine)

During the rest of our visit, we go through Savannah rituals—eating at favorite restaurants, driving out to the beach where I continue to hope that the store that carries boiled peanuts will be open (but it is more often closed for the holidays, and I have to settle for inferior peanuts in a can or a sealed package), and threatening to take my children past my childhood locales. For some reason, they have almost no interest in seeing my high school or junior high ever again. So I drive by and reminisce when they are not in the car.

I also make my own ritual trip each year to visit my father’s grave, in my own way mimicking that trip to El Dorado so long ago. Each year, I find more gravestones nearby with the names of parents of childhood friends etched on them, and I have to find more rocks to place upon the gravestones to indicate the connection I feel between them and me.

Most of us these days are wanderers. A few of us are lucky enough to find our way home at least once in a while.

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