Saturday, December 17, 2005

Far From Home

When I relocated to the East Coast years ago, I was running away from everyone and everything I knew at that point in my life. I thought life wouldn’t be as painful or severe in another city. I had the misguided notion that I’d find fame and fortune as an actor on Broadway or one of my deceased aunt’s favorite soap operas. I didn’t give much thought to how I’d achieve this destined success of agents, directors, producers, publicity and interview requests. I thought I’d figure it out if I decided to stay, if not every violent stereotype about New York came true, and I survived – if I could navigate the avenues and grid of numbered streets. There were no malls or super-sized grocery stores with friendly greeters stationed near the front door. I had to find and establish a surrogate family and new set of friends – my sanity was at stake as I endured the harsh winters and brutal summers of heat-related deaths among the elderly. I thought of my grandmother and how she’d have coped with the extremes in temperatures.

I played it safe for too many years and didn’t become a media darling before thirty. Safe isn’t always good. Safe can pay the bills and prevent hunger, but safe seldom realizes dreams. New York City is a hub of finance, media, and entertainment; although I didn’t think about that when I consolidated my life into two-foot lockers and an inexpensive set of luggage, bound for JFK. I sat in the airport hotel room with my suitcases and trunks opened, mulling over my decision to flee before calling my sounding board. Granny would say the right thing and make it all better. Instead, she asked a question, forcing me to make a decision. “Do you want to be there? If not, you know you can always come home.”

New York City is different from the heat, humidity, and southern hospitality of Houston, Texas. New York has been my adopted home for the last eleven years; two years spent in New Jersey, a total of thirteen years on the East Coast. I have been gone so long that I don’t know if could ever return, or if I’d want to. I’m emotionally safer here, yet I’m missing opportunities to get to know my nieces and watch them grow. I was certain that I wouldn’t grow old never having left Houston, afraid to fly, afraid to meet and interact with people outside my comfort zone. I had to leave to discover who I was, and what I was capable of becoming. I was concerned with living a life on perpetual rewind.

Home was “home”, no glamour or ceremony, just a place I returned to after church or school prior to living on campus. Until seven or eight years of age, home was my grandmother’s house which smelled of coffee brewing in the early morning, skillet cornbread, collard greens, baby formula and baby powder. I thought home would never change, but it did. I grew older and started asking tough questions, challenging the status quo in my single-parent home. I didn’t think about a sense of place or home as a child surrounded by screaming, scheming cousins and manipulative adults, or later when I had my first infatuation with a girl.

Home morphed into parallel worlds – the reality that I couldn’t escape and join the circus, away from a family in constant turmoil, and an academic/extracurricular one of an overachiever showman seeking emotional support and comfort from overworked teachers and administrators.

I was happier away from my mother’s home. I was able to be someone whose opinion mattered. My mother reminded my younger brothers and me that she held the purse strings, that she could make our lives miserable, and that she held our lives in her hands. I left Texas to get away from the internal fighting and public hypocrisy of my family. I left home to discover who I was away from the family curse, legacy, or destiny. I left home to discover if I was able to survive on my own.

Each succeeding year the gravitational pull of my birthplace decreases. I have tried to remain close to home in my heart and through phone calls, but some memories cut like a knife. I retract my hand to save my arm. I’m far from home, yet when I call my grandmother and listen to the cadence of her voice and words of wisdom and inspiration, I’m transported back. I miss sitting next to her on the living room sofa as she sits with the phone nestled in her lap. When she dozes off, the ringing startles her awake, interrupting private conversations with deceased relatives.

I’m far from the unknown family history that granny alone might hold the key. I think back to what I can imagine as her past in the early 1920’s as a young child. I wonder what memories she’s locked away or forgotten, though she’d say she’s in full command of her mental faculties. Anywhere in the world I’ve traveled or lived, I always remember my petite grandmother, a one-time mother of twelve, now grandmother and great-grandmother to at least thirty. I’ve not returned home in a few years, there are new cousins I’ve not met. No matter how far from home I live or travel, I remember my grandmother gave me a ride in a wheelbarrow early one school morning when I was in kindergarten from a house my mother rented up the street to her house with my school clothes and lunchbox in tow, under the cover of dark.

Granny was strength and sacrifice to me before I realized and appreciated that all heroes weren’t men in costumes. I keep telling myself it doesn’t matter that she can no longer do the same activities she was once capable. Far from home, I miss the type of genuine woman my grandmother has been most of my life.

I don’t know if it’s wise to continue suppressing the urge to visit, concerned that I’m not supposed to be the peacemaker or anthropologist. Now that I’m older, I’d like to think the past can remain in boxes, trunks, and bags stuffed in a basement or attic, and not interfere with the present or future.

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