It has been years, close to twenty in fact, since I’ve been here – the only place I’ve ever really called home. Since literally all of my family moved away to locations less interesting and in which I have absolutely no history, I’ve become a kind of girl-without-a-home. For my parents, Baton Rouge was just a stopping point – a home away from their home. They’ve since moved on to other stopping points completely oblivious to the fact that they have made their children, in effect, homeless. And hell, I don’t blame them. Be happy, that’s what I say.
Even so, it makes me a little sad that I’m forced to stay in a hotel in the same city in which I spent my formative years. And I like to imagine that the city is a little sad too that it’s been so long since I’ve visited (What can I say? I have an active imagination). And so tonight, as I was driving in to the city, it felt more like a reckoning than a homecoming. It’s you and me, Baton Rouge. What are we going to make of our relationship?
Of course, places don’t talk. At least, not in the way that we’d like them to. It would have been great if, upon crossing the Mississippi/Louisiana state border a giant bubble had appeared in the sky with the words “Welcome Home!” written in comic sans script. But that didn’t happen. In fact, nothing of note happened at all – unless you count a ten mile traffic jam at the merging of I-12 and I-10 something of note. Which I do. I count it as something of note because that is exactly where Baton Rouge welcomed me home. And it all started with a sign.
The sign read: Denham Springs (you weren’t expecting an actual miracle-from-heaven sign, were you?). Denham Springs is a town that used to be on the outskirts of the city, where you could still find real country living, but has today been swallowed up by the urban sprawl. I spent a few years of my life in what we all simply called “Denham,” living in a trailer on the land my brother and father cleared by themselves. I can still remember that land when it was wild and tangled. And how, slowly, on weekends and holidays and with the ever present sound of a chainsaw, those men carved out the lawn on which I would play tackle football with that same brother and his friends. And how they left that one tree standing that I would back into with the car at what would be the end of our driveway. And it would be the very spot my brother worked all one summer to clear that the neighbor boy named Dennis would stand in the middle of the night to ask me to sneak out the window and kiss him in the shed behind his house.
And then there was the sign for Sherwood Forest Boulevard. This street bears the name of one of my elementary schools (we moved around a lot. I think I went to a total of six different schools in the Baton Rouge vicinity between grades 1 and 7). But this was the school I went to when we lived in Sherwood Forest subdivision where I was the youngest neighborhood hoodlum following the other kids down the street and behind so-and-so’s house to knock back a swig of something that tasted like I imagined gasoline must taste, and where some girl ran into her home to get toothpaste to cover the smell on one of the other girl’s breath because surely no one would notice that she couldn’t walk if we could only get rid of the smell! This was the neighborhood where I stole the candy from the corner 7-11 and then went back, on my own and without anyone knowing, crying and asking forgiveness from what I know now must have been the seventeen-year-old kid behind the counter. Sherwood Forest Elementary School was just off the Sherwood Forest Boulevard exit and around the corner from the Sherwood Forest subdivision where I played in the street, wore a purple and gold skirt to school and didn’t yet know that there were men who waited and watched for little girls standing by the road waiting for the bus to come.
There were other signs too, of course. I passed the exit for Airline Highway and, though I can’t be certain, I’m pretty sure my mother worked at an Albertson’s (or was it a Western Sizzlin Steakhouse?) on Airline Highway. In either case, this is also the same street that an old woman pulled a gun on me when I honked at her for sitting too long at a red light. It is the street on which I jumped a curb, in my just-learning-to-drive-but-already-have-my-license days, right in front of a police officer and then darted into the parking lot of what I know for a fact was an Albertson’s to hide amongst the Saturday afternoon shopper’s parked cars.
The signs were, in fact, everywhere! (As is true on most major interstates). And I realized that home is a tricky concept. The truth is, I have lots of homes. I have my home in Oxford, Mississippi where I have chosen to build my life. My mother’s home in Texas is a home to me as well, if for no other reason than the fact that she and my brother live there. There is also the home in which my parents grew up and in which I spent much of my youth visiting my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. And there are many, many more. The homes of good friends and of friends of the family, old homes that I used to live in but are currently occupied by strangers, and then there are the cities. So many wonderful cities that I have called home.
I guess, in the end, Baton Rouge and I have solidified our relationship. I promise to come back and visit more often if she promises to continue welcoming me home. Whatever that means.