The Thirty-Second Letter: Where I’m From

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Dear Daughters,

Even before you were born, I wondered what it would be like to raise children in Kentucky.

And by in Kentucky, I mean anywhere that isn’t Pennsylvania.

What would it be like to have children with a slight twang in their speech, who pay attention to Kentucky basketball, who drink Ale8, don’t drive in the snow, say “put up” for “put away” and  “I don’t care to” for “I really am okay with doing that”?

I’m only partially joking.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what it means to be “from” a place.

A few weeks ago, I drove you to Pennsylvania to be with family for a week, and I was reminded (a) how much I myself hate to drive in the snow and (b) how much I love central Pennsylvania.

I love the tunnels on the Turnpike that take you through mountains, especially the REMOVE SUNGLASSES sign at the mouth of the tunnels. I love the roads carved out of rock, and how the waterfalls freeze as they pour down from the mountains above. I love the width of the Susquehanna River, the old house on Front Street where I used to babysit for a wealthy family, the quirky miniature Statue of Liberty on her own proud platform in the middle of the river. I love the old dying rural towns, the 3-story row homes along tight curvy roads, the metal bridges, the piles of dirty snow that take forever to melt.

Driving on those skinny roads, through those dying towns, I was surprised just how much it felt like “home” to me.

And, at the same time, how much I felt like a stranger.

Because that’s the way it works, girls, when you move away from somewhere. There is both a beauty in going back and a sadness in going back.

I don’t know what it’s like to live as an adult in Pennsylvania, to be married and raising a family there. I’ve owned two homes, but neither of them in a blue state. Though still pretty young, I’m quickly approaching the point at which I will have spent more years away from Pennsylvania than the number I lived there before heading north to college. It was four years in New York, four years in Texas, and now, gulp, eight years here in Kentucky.

That’s just craziness.

Inspired by Kentucky Poet Laureate George Ella Lyon’s poem, “Where I’m From,” my writing group helped organize an event at our local arts and cultural center this week. We encouraged members of our local community to write their own meditations about where they’re from and then gather together Monday night for a time of sharing and reflection. And eating, of course. Always eating.

Among the small group who came out to listen and share, it turned out that the majority were transplants–if not from out of state, at least from a different part of the state, and that means a lot in Kentucky. But here we all were, reflecting on our roots, sharing stories that resonated across generations, across families, across hometowns. There were so many similarities in the reminiscences, and not just in the serenading song of the poems, but in their substance. So many strong women. So many shared cultural references. So much community influence, cultivation of the land, hope and religion and faith, watering the deep roots that get us through suffering. These were the themes that I heard over and over again, no matter where the speaker “was from.”

It was a powerful evening because these are powerful stories.

Here’s the poem I wrote for the occasion:

I’m from right-leaning, Jesus-loving, question-asking people.

I’m from silos on barns, blue gills and

sunnies in the pond, choose your own adventures.

I’m from “Can He, Could He, Would He?” and

“My Mommy Told Me Something,”

DC Talk and Trisha Yearwood,

praise music on a stage and turned-my-nob-to-BOB94.9.

I’m from a coach bus paid for by love offerings, gospel music

sung to cassette tracks on feedback-heavy church sound systems.

I’m from dippy eggs and pancakes, Heinz ketchup

on scrambled eggs, on macaroni and cheese, on everything,

cider vinegar on French fries, sauerkraut at New Years.

I’m from functional dysfunction, four good parents, in the land of

Hershey’s Chocolate, Gettysburg Battlefields, Sheetz gas stations, Amish country.

I’m from crayfish at the base of Stony Creek Dam, cracks in a sidewalk

instead of a front yard, swimming in Grandma’s above-ground pool.

I’m from through-the-night drives to Florida for Christmas,

New Hampshire for fourth of July,

singing the alto line with Mom, saying “PA” instead of Pennsylvania.

I’m from after-school specials, Saved By the Bell, and TGIF,

cut-up magazines and hand-markered poetry posterboard, stapled

to the horsehair-plaster walls above my waterbed.

I’m from learning how to type in elementary school,

post-Columbine security, the first generation

of cell phones that did nothing but make calls.

I’m from prayers when I was sick but three-times-a-day

penicillin for recurring UTIs, a grandma who quilted

the United States of America, a daddy who could cook.

I’m from Psalm 23, John 3:16, Caesar Augustus’s decree that all the world should be taxed, recited in kindergarten.

I’m from dinner around a table, memorized commercial jingles and sitcom theme songs, wanting to be a paleontologist but preferring to read than to get dirty.

I’m from people who love me, kiss hello and goodbye, sometimes three smooches and nibbles on ears; women with perms, men going gray, cousins aging so quickly my breath catches when I see them, once a year, if I’m lucky.

I’m from people whose faith I envy, who believe even now, when it’s hard to believe, who love me even now, though they can’t quite remember

if I live in Tennessee

or Kentucky.

***

Yes, that last bit was a joke. But it’s true. For some reason, Pennsylvanians seem to get Kentucky and Tennessee perpetually confused.

It amuses me.

Anyway, I still don’t know what makes you “from” a place. I’ve got a much simpler life trajectory than some of my friends who were raised on the mission field, for example, who have lived in many places across the globe, across the country, without a centralized location for extended family. But even so, I feel the push and pull of living somewhere I love that still doesn’t feel like “home.”

I do love Kentucky. It is your home. It is my home.

But it doesn’t feel like home.

Not yet.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

 

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