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Bittersweet Homecomings

I have had many homecomings lately. Though none of them involved sports. Instead, they were returns to places where I've lived and loved.
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I have had many homecomings lately. Though none of them involved sports. Instead, they were returns to places where I've lived and loved to promote my memoir. And the truth is, they were all bittersweet. Something happens when we get it into our heads and hearts that you CAN go home again. Maybe we think we can be back in those old rooms with those smells and people and little self-assigned altars and have it be easy or have it be sweet with no bitter, or at least like a movie you're starring in that might have someone else crying, but not you. You are removed and cool and older now, and hence self-contained. You've been around. Seen things. You've logged some miles on some bad road. So you knock on those doors. This'll be fun, you think. Or at least a little like the social anthropology course you took at your liberal arts college.

Upon walking into the front hall of my old house, the campus of my New England boarding school, the house of an old friend I hadn't seen in years and who was like a second mother to me a long time ago ... I felt deep sadness. Yes, gratitude to see them and be hosted by them, of course. But still, sad. I wasn't sad for what I no longer had, I was sad for all the little self-assigned altars.

A coat closet. A china platter. A painting. A book collection. A window seat. A foot stool. A twist in banister. A finial. An escutcheon. A powder room heater. A set of back stairs. I kept losing my ushers, taking turns they didn't expect. No I didn't want to see the new badillion dollar academic building, gorgeous as it was. I wanted to sit in the old steam-heated library and look up at a portrait of a professor who had died dancing on our first night of school. No I didn't want to see how spacious the new addition was to my old house. I wanted to see if there were still dead frogs in the basement window wells. And no, I didn't want to see the wine cellar. I wanted to see the Steiff rabbits I once played with and their hand-knit wool cardigans made by my friend's grandmother. Touchstones. Amulets. The safety of homes. Did the linen closet still smell of moth balls? The back closet, like my father? Was there that quote I wrote in black laundry marker under the window seat lid, or an old china animal still hiding in the secret dormer cupboard, or my name still carved in the phone booth, before cell phones, all those miles away from home? Was I erased?

I liked how I cried. Only because I liked less how I could talk myself through it. Be an adult. No one needs to see you cry. You can't erase your memories. You'll always have them.

But I cried anyway. I let myself.

And then I came home to Montana to pick up the lost stitch of my life that gets dropped every time I leave on book tour even though I know my role as mother is secure -- and it's homecoming week. The kids are dressing up each day in things like togas and school colors with ambitious plans to decorate lockers and attend bonfires and parades. But I'm somehow and strangely not home here, for all my recent homecomings in the places of my youth. My youth did not play out in this town, after all. My youth played out in the towns I just visited and with the people I just read excerpts of my book to and who clapped for me and hugged me and said, "I knew you'd be a success one day. From the time I saw you in your first school play." I don't have that home here. My kids do. As it is when you pick up and move hundreds of miles away from where you grew up and start a family in a new place.

I don't think of the places of my youth very much these days. But they're on my mind now as I look through my photos of my trip--all the people and places and familiar doors opening with friendly faces to welcome me home. I know home is ultimately within me. I know you can't really go home again. But as I watch the bonfire tonight and the kids chant around it in green and gold holding Bulldog flags and pom-poms, I'll be glad for their home being here and now, and I'll be their witness, and yes, I might cry a bit too. And when they come back one day and knock on my door, if I'm still behind it, I will welcome their bitter with their sweet. And tell them that it's okay to cry.