by Elizabeth Dengler
As my family of 4 traversed across the country from Eastern WA through Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky we were on a mission ultimately to the beach, but first we had a stop to make in East Tennessee, the place where I spent half my life. Here my dad built 2 homes, 1 of which I grew up in. He had his custom cabinet business, my schools are here, my church I spent every Sunday in, and friends. All these people and places over the last 20 years, which is how much time has passed since my last visit, have existed in the vacuum of my memory, preserved as the moments, both significant and not so much. From catching fireflies to learning to drive on windy country roads, half my life was here. I was excited to share it all with my husband and our kids. But a most peculiar thing happened, one I wasn’t expecting.
As we were making our trip to town to meet a dear old friend for lunch I made a request of my family. I asked to be given their grace and their patience as I met with whatever emotions came up for me at this time in my hometown. It was most important because my dad was in the end stages of dementia. Although he and my mother moved away a long time ago the places he built are still there. I wasn’t sure how I would feel seeing the structures he designed, what he poured his sweat into. I wanted my family to support me and they agreed. After lunch and meeting friends, we drove down the main highway past his cabinet shop, now a muffler shop. I smiled to think of all the times I sat in his office flipping through the formica swatches and design books. We made it out of town to the country roads passing first a house dad built that we never lived in, it looked just as it did all those years ago when he completed it. Then, a couple miles later we were on the single lane, curvy road that would take us to my childhood home in the hollar. As we were approaching the driveway, I saw a woman I recognized up the hill just shy of our turn off. It was my neighbor, Mrs. Trent. I yelled at my husband to stop the truck. I jumped out of our rig and I yelled her name as I ran up the hill. She stopped walking, examining me as I ran towards her shouting her name. Then, out of breath I said, “I’m Elizabeth Ewing, Tom and Nancy’s girl!” as I gestured across the driveway towards the hill my family home sat. Her face lit up as she remembered the little girl that would spend endless hours riding bikes with her son, running through their hills, watching Tom and Jerry cartoons in her living room. We caught up, I shared about Dad, she met my kids, we beamed in the presence of the familiarity. She spoke of the new owners of my family home and a lack of closeness with them. We shared a Reader’s Digest version of the past 20 years of our lives. We pointed to all the homes in the hollar to discover she and only 2 other families still resided there. I asked if we could use her driveway to see my old house, as we shared the long driveway when I was a kid. When you got to the end of the straightaway, you turned left to our house and right to Mr. Trent’s shop. She generously said we could drive up and around anywhere we wanted on her property. I ran back to the road where my husband sat in the truck and we drove forward to 2 huge boulders that for as long as I know have anchored either side of that driveway. We started up the gravel path and as I gazed at the large white pines that I remember my dad planting I moved around in my seat trying to get a view of the house and while it looked much the same, it was unfamiliar to me. My basketball hoop I got for my 11th birthday, that Dad and I worked to install, has my initials hammered into the metal pole; it still stood. Instead of turning towards the house we turned towards our neighbor’s shop. I remember the nights Mr. Trent would be welding and across the distance I could see the blue arc. And then it hit me….home isn’t a place, home is people and I’ve never been more certain about that than I was at that moment. We drove off back towards town and on our way out passed a few other homes of people that were dear to me that no longer resided there. Time moved on and so did the rest of us.
Dad died that Tuesday. We capped off the end of our trip with his funeral. Now, whenever I want to visit home again all I have to do is recall a memory of Dad and me and I’m there. Home is wherever the people I love are and when they’re gone, home is the sweetest memory there is.