Tuesday, February 15, 2022

A Sense of Place

Saying goodbye to my beloved grandmother—a lifelong treasure and our last surviving grandparent—brings waves of another grief that has been unexpected yet profound. Pleasantries of conversation turn awkward when someone asks, “Where are you from?” Having resided in five states and thirteen cities over the course of my life, I don’t find it an easy question to answer and usually respond by stumbling over an abbreviated geographical timeline of my past.

In my heart, though, there was always Jacksonville. Both of my parents grew up in this small city nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians, and it was home to all four grandparents. When I was in elementary school, our immediate family lived in the area for a time, but before, after, and always, this was the place that we returned to for vacations and holidays. Despite setting up housekeeping, over their nearly four decades of marriage, in destinations as far flung as California, North Dakota, and North Carolina, my parents settled in northeast Alabama near the end of my mother’s life, and she actually took her last breath in the same hospital where she had taken her first.

Today, the road to Grandma’s leads me through meandering paths of memory, evoking images of countless childhood trips in the family station wagon. To pass the hours, my sister and I took turns choosing sites along the way as our future houses. The game would slow, however, as we approached the familiar landmarks of Anniston because the city’s tree-lined boulevard promised a historic church that looked, to our young eyes, like a sprawling castle. Whoever missed out on that prime piece of real estate had little time to wait, though, before laying claim to the elegant Victorian hotel perched on a nearby hilltop.

In Jacksonville, the town square is first to extend a welcome, showcasing new businesses alongside tried-and-true establishments. Up ahead, hallowed halls of the university beckon with knowledge of our maternal grandfather, who was a professor of economics, and our maternal grandmother, a librarian. Though Mema and Papa died years ago, their cottage, set within walking distance of campus, stands as a happy reminder of the affection that once filled its cozy quarters. I’m surprised to survey their tidy lawn and realize its modest size; in my earliest days, it was a vast wonderland to explore as well as a football field for twirling batons or cheerleading and an amphitheater for regaling relatives with dazzling impromptu theatrical productions.

Just a few blocks away, 901 Fourth Avenue beckons. This little brick charmer, built by my paternal grandparents in the 1960s, brims with keepsakes from a life well loved. Mugs collected over seventy years of marriage edge the ceiling, family photos line the walls, and furnishings built by Granddad showcase Grandma’s creative pastimes, including painting, sewing, crochet, and ceramics. In the living room, hymnals rest on the piano, ready to play. Outside, a weathered basketball faintly echoes the steady percussive beat of pickup games among generations of neighborhood boys—sons who are now fathers and grandfathers.

No matter how many times my address changed over the years, it was comforting to have a spot on the globe that remained constant. No matter how far we wandered in the name of educational or professional pursuits, our pin in the map was Jacksonville, and we could always go home.

That sense of connection was shaken over the weekend with the news that Grandma, whose health had declined steadily since she became a widow, took a turn for the worse and was not expected to recover. The final pilgrimage to her bedside felt like a heartbreaking farewell, not only to my precious grandmother but also to the adopted hometown of my subconscious. For days, I felt uprooted, ungrounded, unmoored.

With so many loved ones gone, where in the world do I belong?

Comfort has finally come in reframing reflections from where I grew up to how. That shift allows me to reflect on people instead of place, proclaiming the bountiful blessings of my upbringing. In truth, I’m from deeply rooted faith: listening to my father preach the message of amazing grace, reciting memory verses in Sunday school, singing devotional songs around the bonfire at church camp, praying for those in need, and saying “I care” through poppyseed chicken casserole. I’m from close-knit family: reading books with Daddy before bedtime; harmonizing with Mother as she strummed the guitar; playing house, hospital, and school with the little sister who turned into my best friend; and doting on a baby brother who is still the apple of my eye. And I’m from traditions: Thanksgivings that look like aunts, uncles, and cousins gathering from afar, taste like tables laden with time-honored recipes, smell like autumn leaves, and sound like oft-repeated tales that grow sweeter in the retelling. Mostly, though, I’m from gratitude: thankful that God placed me—gently, thoughtfully, lovingly—right where I was meant to be.

Photo by Alba Conejero GutiƩrrez/JSU. Used with Permission.

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