A once familiar land

I spent the weekend visiting my Mom for her birthday. Just under a year ago she moved back to the town where I attended High School—a town I haven’t lived in for 28 years.

I’ve visited regularly throughout that time. My grandma lived there until her death a few years ago, along with numerous cousins and my Aunt Silly. A few years ago my sister and her two kids moved back. So I have visited for various holidays, birthdays and the like, and/or stopped in on my way elsewhere. So it isn’t that I am completely unfamiliar with the place and the changes that have occurred since I left.

For some reason this weekend left me feeling more of a stranger to that place than any previous visit.

I’m not entirely sure why. I have some suspicions. This is the first time in many years that my husband, Michael, wasn’t with me (he had stayed in Seattle to rest and recuperate). He’s never lived in that town, so I was always more familiar with the place than at least one person I was hanging out it. Being with my husband anywhere is always like we’re carrying a bit of home around with us, so no strange place feels entirely alien if he’s with me.

This was also the first visit in a long time that I didn’t at least stop at Grandma’s house. My aunt moved into Grandma’s house after Grandma died, and so I’ve continued to have a reason to visit the house. While my aunt has changed a lot about the place, it’s still Grandma’s house on Grandma’s street. I saw my aunt this weekend (she came to Mom’s for cake and ice cream), but I didn’t go by her place.

This isn’t a case of me suddenly realizing the truth encapsulated by the cliché, “you can’t go home again.” When I left to finish my college degree, I had every intention of returning to that town, or a very similar community, to settle down. But I fell in love with the city. I can’t imagine living somewhere where there aren’t multiple supermarkets open 24 hours, for instance. Let alone living without multiple theatre companies, the opera, and all the other things that come with a culturally vibrant city. And while Seattle isn’t exactly known for its racial diversity, with about two-thirds of residents being white, that’s a big difference from the 92% white demographic in Mom’s community.

Maybe it is the slow accumulation of little changes over those 28 years, making once familiar places look less and less as I remember.

But I don’t think it’s about the town changing, it’s the other way around. I’ve changed a lot, yes, and even more importantly, the world has changed.

Coming out of the closet more than 20 years ago, and realizing how little freedom to be myself I would have if I returned, played a big role in the alienation of my affections for that town. I don’t remember anyone who was living as an openly gay person when I was attending high school and community college there (there were people that everyone suspected and whispered about, of course). Now there are several gay and lesbian people living there, and at least one gay teen support group that advertises meetings and activities. But it did not escape my notice that the recent referendum to extend marriage rights to same sex couples was rejected in that community by a margin of nearly 20%.

But it’s not just about me being gay and unsure how welcome my husband and I would be if we moved there. Nor is it just the practical financial matters (there aren’t many jobs that require my skills and specializations). It’s so much more. I like not having to bite my tongue as strangers make racial comments about the president. I like walking through a parking lot and not seeing dozens of deeply conservative political, religious, and anti-science bumper stickers, and absolutely none of the other kind. I like living in a community that believes in and enjoys investing in infrastructure and schools and social services. I like living in a community that knows that a lot of its tax dollars go out to less-populated parts of the state, without resenting the people who use them.

I’ve changed. That town as changed. One can argue about which one has changed the most, but it’s not just about how far down our paths we’ve gone, but also about direction.

And I know we’re not headed toward the same goal.

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