I Am Home

Susan Cordell - Hamilton, Alabama
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, June 24, 2011
Susan Cordell

It’s been said you can’t go home again, but Susan Cordell, an assistant professor in Alabama, disagrees. She believes she can—and will—return to the small Tennessee town where she was raised, drawn by the depth of memories she holds of that place.

Age Group: 30 - 50
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I take issue with Mr. Thomas Wolfe who said, “You can’t go home again.” People repeat this phrase like a mantra, but I do not think it’s true. You can go home again, if you took enough with you when you left.

I escaped small-town life at 21, vowing never to return. I maintained that attitude for 25 years, until October 2005 when my mother died. Actually Mother had lived with my husband John and me for almost seven years in Alabama. With her there, I had home without having to visit my hometown.

We reminisced about days long gone: the time I set fire to the car at the drive-in with the cigarette lighter. Daddy helping me wobble down the dirt road on my new bike. We talked about when Daddy died—I was only 16—how our lives lurched again and again. We whispered ancient family scandals while we cooked from yellowed newspaper recipes. And we could hardly wait to receive the hometown paper in the mail. Not for more recipes but for the obituaries. There was nothing more important than knowing who had passed.

Then she died. Not unexpectedly but after a long, over-burdened life. We took Mother home to Tennessee and on a beautiful fall day buried her in the family cemetery on the hill, next to Daddy. It was one of those days that was perfect for hanging out clothes that, when you put them on, you can smell the afternoon heat and the blue of the sky.

That October I became an orphan. Sadly, I realized that my hometown ties were buried with Mother. I no longer had to worry about coming home again. Suddenly that worried me. But a strange thing has happened. I have visited my mountain home several times. I’m even looking for property to build a house someday.

I know, Mr. Wolfe, that things have changed and the past is, well, past, but when I left a quarter century ago, I took home with me. I tucked it away until I needed it. Sure, the landscape has changed. Most of my childhood friends have moved away. They are likely saying with less conviction than 25 years ago that they’ll never go home.

But I have. I visit cherished haunts and superimpose memory over reality. I stop outside my house, watch myself swing until dark, run barefoot through the yard’s white clover, feel Mother’s breath wash over me as she fixes a bee sting. I snuggle in bed with Mama Partin. I smell scrambled eggs and shoe polish as I finish breakfast and run out the door with my Buster Browns half-buckled. The sun is blindingly beautiful at the cemetery as I listen to someone play “Taps” for my dad.

Yes, I took enough away, and it is serving me well. I close my eyes, lower my head. I touch my parents’ warm gravestone, and thank them for giving me what I needed. I cry. I am home.

Susan Cordell is an assistant professor in the Department of Instructional Leadership and Support at the Julia Tutwiler College of Education at the University of West Alabama in Livingston. She still plans to move back to her hometown in Tennessee after she retires.