You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.
– John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley
A friend of mine was explaining her family’s Thanksgiving spread the other day, “We’re Italian,” she began and then described the menu.
It got me thinking about how I would start that explanation. My forebears got around. While I’ve always had a twinge of jealousy toward friends who can trace their lineage to one or two countries, I’ve also felt a sense of pride when I explain my mixture of heritages.
I can certainly take it back to pre-American roots and examine the tour of Europe. I don’t feel tied to those countries though. Growing up, there were no traditions rooted in my German or French ancestry. No big family meals featured foods of a specific culture on the table.
My most immediate sense of where I’m from comes from where the last five generations of my family found their homes. The Oklahoma Territory, Colorado, Missouri, Illinois. These places signify the geography to which I find myself most attached. They are where I consider myself to be from.
My dad, grandparents and great uncle live in houses dotted on what, a generation ago was our fully functioning family farm. Rusting on a sign post along the road is a sign, now nearly 20 years old, certifying the land as a sesquicentennial farm. Before it was the Land of Lincoln, and not long after it became a state, Illinois was the place of my people.
A stone in my dad’s back yard bear’s a plaque noting where my ancestors built their first cabin upon arriving in Illinois.
While my roots are somehow in the soil of far-off lands, it is in these more local spaces that I feel most planted.
Some friends took a year or a summer abroad after graduating college. They backpacked through Europe and got to know the cultures and history of spaces unknown.
To me, this is odd.
Much of this country to much of its people is made up of spaces, histories, and cultures unknown.
A person could travel from Chicago to Birmingham or vice versa and find they’ve crossed tremendous boundaries.
This is lost on many.
We speak of America as a monolith, which is what I suppose comes of naming them the United States.
The paradox of it, though, is the pluralism of our unity.
Often I read of schools whose missions are to take their students to several countries or continents before they graduate.
Think of the education possible in the goal of ensuring all students visit each of the 50 states before they graduate. They would graduate not only with a high school diploma, but with a certificate in advanced citizenship as well. They would carry with them an understanding of the complexity of democracy few could match and one sadly lacking in much of our national discourse.
The threads that tie me to my ancestors of other nations are gossamer. Those that tie me to where I’m from are those that matter most.