Silence, save for the sounds of leaves shaking and branches swaying under the influence of a light and lazy August breeze, greeted me as I returned home for the first time in nearly a year. Following an excursion that took me from Roanoke to Chicago, Cleveland, and Buffalo, silence was a welcome greeting. Silence broke when it was followed by my mother’s embrace – she was happy to see me! Why don’t I come home more often? The usual welcome that I get when returning home after an extended absence, so the usual welcome at this point.
I’ve spent my adult life running away from the rustic – some might say quaint – trappings of the homeland. Oh? Homeland? Yeah, upstate New York. No, not White Plains. That’s too far south. Albany? Nope, you’re still too far to the south. Keep looking north – keep going north on Interstate 87 until you hit the end. Seriously. A stretch of lonely villages that dot the Northern Tier of New York as it comes to abut Québec and Lake Champlain. Yeah. There. This time home was no different from any of the previous, save for my sister – my baby sister! – was getting married this weekend and I was in the wedding party.
Mom, I don’t go home because there’s nothing. Home is a shell of a place that is being left behind by a confluence of global economic forces and stubborn unwillingness of locals to move forward. Life back home is a perpetual snapshot of high school, senior year, now fifteen years removed. Those of us who had the sense or good fortune to leave did. Those of us who didn’t or couldn’t are sinking into a crowd of aging millennials drowning in a sea of narcotics and alcohol. So mom, I’m sorry I don’t go home more often.
It’s just too damn sad.
As a result, any time I leave my mother’s house, it’s with trepidation – fear that I will see the fleeting wraiths of the past entangled with a displaced, zombified present. A trip to the mall in the nearest city, twenty miles away, typically confirms that worry. This time did not fail. While at Target in the mall, my best friend from high school walked up to me, taking me by surprise. I hadn’t spoken to her or seen her in eight or nine years. We caught up. Her daughter was going to be ten years old, her daughter’s father an abusive alcoholic. Her mother was living in the same apartment complex she’d lived in when I last saw my friend. My friend told me about how she limits her daughter’s time with her daughter’s grandmother – my friend’s mother – because her grandmother is perpetually drunk. My friend’s brother? He had a terrifying experience because after he’d been clean for a year, he went on a multi-week bender, shooting and snorting every drug he could find until the drugs didn’t work any more and nearly killed himself after drinking a handle of the least expensive scotch he could find.
He said it was a wake up call.
The ghosts were all around. The shuffling of the gaunt and barely living skeletons, bound by the chains of drugs, time, and location. I told my friend that this was why I never come back. Everything’s gone to hell. And if it had already been hell when we were younger, the sleep was cleared away from my eyes and a newly focused set of eyes saw the ugly reality, able to perceive the desperation and the desire to be transported out of time and place. Some of us were lucky, some of us were able to leave physically. The rest have had to chemically transport themselves away from their environments. My friend told me that she would have left, too, but she couldn’t.
And that’s a damn shame. You see, by virtue of her environment, all of her talent was leached out. I remember that she could easily transpose anything she heard on the radio to piano. Literally anything. She was interested in history, science… But back home, family life, the area beyond the event horizon that is our shared black hole of a home, there couldn’t be a future for someone who couldn’t get out, regardless of the talent. If you wanted a good paying job, you were left with few options: the Border Patrol, the State Police, the Department of Corrections or the drug company. When the drug company left, options dissipated. Retail. Food service. Any job to pay the bills and live to barely scrape by.
Mom, this is why I don’t go home. Going home is returning to Roanoke.
Roanoke’s got its share of problems, many of them not so different from the problems plaguing the area of my birth. However, we’re a community that has resources by virtue of its size. We’re a community that’s moved towards the future instead of haphazardly recusing itself from the future. As I drive down Elm Avenue and Hershberger Road, there are periodically homeless people, begging for help at the corners and medians, but these are the exceptions and not the norms. And yes, we have drug abuse, issues with violence, and significant issues with inequality. However, here, unlike my home region, people are present who care to fix those problems.
The morning after the wedding, I left at 5:45. The drive back home, to Roanoke, took just over twelve hours. It was still light when the Mill Mountain Star first appeared as I drove down 581. A smile grew across my face.
It’s good to be home.