Thomas Wolfe said it. You can’t go home again.
And yet, of course, you can. It’s just that when you go back, home will have changed. And, of course, you will have changed, too, so the place may not feel even remotely familiar.
I’ve just been back, though, back to Oglesby, the small town in north-central Illinois where I was born, where I spent my childhood. A town I left more than sixty years ago.
In one way, of course, I’ve never left, as none of us ever truly leaves that patchwork quilt of early memories behind. In another, the whole town seems to have happened to someone else. Was that awkward, lonely girl really me?
Actually, I didn’t grow up in town. I grew up on the edge of Oglesby next to the dusty, noisy cement mill where my dad was the chemist. I loved everything about that place. The trains chuffing and tooting and banging. The bellowing mill whistle. The smoke stack puffing out a constant column of white smoke, as beautiful, I thought, as any cloud in the sky. The deep woods that took up where the mill and the yards surrounding our mill houses left off.
I felt safe in that remote world. Much safer there than I ever did at the school in town where, surrounded by strangers, I started kindergarten at the tender age of four.
Through the years that followed, few of those strangers became anything like friends. I was too much younger than my classmates, too shy, too occupied with the world inside my head, too socially oblivious. I wasn’t set off only by the distance I lived from town, but by coming from a family of outsiders. My parents had come to Oglesby from foreign places—California and Minnesota—and probably even more damning than that, they navigated social rules awkwardly, too.
I always knew myself to be separate, different, not part of the town. And oh, how I longed to belong.
It took me many years after I left Oglesby to learn the skills that would give me entrance into a community, and even now I do the social dance only in the quietest ways, one partner at a time. Sometimes what I have written precedes me into a new group, making a place for me. And that’s pleasant if those I meet have actually read my work rather than responding to some false idea of publishing glamor. What I have written represents my truest self.
So when the call came from an enthusiastic Oglesby attorney, wanting me to come back, wanting me, not as a silent visitor, but as myself, the woman I am now, the writer, the speaker, I couldn’t help but wonder. Does anyone in Oglesby really want to hear me?
I agreed, finally, to a time that was months away, assuming, I suppose, if the date was distant enough it would never really come.
It did come, though. My gracious daughter drove me to that familiar and yet oh-so-uncomfortable place. I went with deep trepidation. The acceptance I have garnered through the years in other communities falls away there.
We drove through the town. So many of the old places gone. The old school torn down, a new one in its place. A new library, too. The dress shop where I bought my teenage clothes, even my wedding dress, now empty. Doherty’s Drug Store that I passed every day on my long walk home, empty as well. (Mrs. Doherty used to give kids two scoops of ice cream for a nickel. Mr. Doherty gave only one as the sign behind the soda counter said was right.)
Even the mill has gone silent.
I spoke at the school to the usual captive audience. Nothing remarkable there except that I haven’t visited a school except for my grandchildren’s classrooms for twenty years. I was interested to see that I could still do it.
Then in the evening I showed up at the library and was surprised to see the seats fill.
I was even more deeply surprised when, just before my presentation, two men came in carrying between them what appeared to be an enormous gift-wrapped picture. Goodness! I thought. Where will I put that?
But I needn’t have worried. When I pulled back the wrapping, what I found wasn’t a picture to be taken home for my wall. It was a highway sign to be posted at the entrance to the town.
I’m usually pretty good with words, but I was speechless!
So, you see, you can go home again. It’s just that when you get there you may find home isn’t any place you have ever known.