Monday, February 27, 2012

What makes a town a ‘hometown’?

Ever notice how some little thing crosses your mind, such as a question that should have an easy answer – one that you shouldn’t have to mull over, not even half a second, before you spit out your response?

But like a needle on an old 45 rpm record, you get stuck there. You can’t move forward. You can’t move back. You’re just going round and round trying to find the answer.

Let’s take this one for instance: What’s your hometown?

Ought to be simple, right?

Maybe, maybe not – seems as if to answer that question we need to ask some others.

Like these:

Is your hometown where you’re born, or where you started school, or where you graduated?

Is it where you married and had your children, where they went off to school?

Or is it the place you moved so your family could have new opportunities?

Is it where you want to go to rest, rejuvenate and volunteer when you retire?

Is it where your family has roots, where your ancestors settled as immigrants or moved in search of the American Dream, though you didn’t live there yourself?

Is it someplace you’ve always loved when you visited – or maybe someplace that you’ve never been, but it’s always called to you as if it were home?

For me it’s a little of several of these.

Though I’ve never visited Ireland nor had my grandmother, she was so proud of her Irish heritage that the Emerald Isle has always called to me, “Come home.” Someday, I hope to.

The Missouri hills where a grandfather was born and raised have always had a pull for me. I think it’s because when I’m there, I feel as if I’m stepping back to that slower pace, those simpler times. I’ll soon move there.

My hometown is also the Illinois community where I was born. Though I didn’t reside there until I started high school, my birth gave me a connection to its history that I cherish still today. And, because I spent nearly 30 years there, it earns a berth by sheer longevity.

My parent’s hometown draws me, too. It is where both sets of grandparents settled, raised their broods, lived until they died. It’s where I first learned the joy of volunteering, savored the taste of a soda fountain treat, visited a five-and-dime and went to a prom.

When I look at a Facebook wall or a newspaper article or watch a state championship football game, I see names I remember from my childhood visiting that town, including surnames found in a 130-year-old county history book. I watch that community come together to help a widow with a special-needs child or pay tribute to a fallen soldier, and it warms my heart.

Yet, when a town not quite as large, but just as much in love with its Friday Night lights as that one, opened its arms to welcome us for a few years, it, too, felt like home.

Before you say, “Heck, she calls every place home,” let me say, “No. I don’t.”

There were a couple of towns through the years that just didn’t feel right – kind of like trying to put a 78 rpm record on a 45 rpm turntable with its big spindle up. It doesn’t fit right, sound right or look right. No matter how hard you try, it’s never going to be right.

Stop and think about it, if you will. How would you reply if I asked you today, “What’s your hometown?”

Or is it better to ask: “What do you call your hometown?”

More than likely, when you look for that answer, it will have less to do with where you lived when, and more to do with how the community welcomed its newcomers and guests, looked after its own, celebrated its history, and emitted a harmony that sounded loud and clear.

When I meet someone who can name several towns they call “home,” it reminds me of how I felt when I was a kid and learned a friend’s family had a phonograph that would play all three speeds.

“Wow, are they ever lucky!”

Still, there is something to be said for the old 'maid' I remember who spent almost 100 years in one little town on the prairie, beloved by it townspeople, loving them in return, and for the young widow I met who sought and found the ideal community, works to promote its heritage and though she has lived many places, knows deep in her heart that she’s found her hometown.

Lucky, I think, is hearing the sounds in your heart that sing “hometown” to you.

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2012

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