Where are you from?
Where did you grow up?
What does the word “home” mean to you?
Those are questions I like to ask someone I’ve just met, say, at a party or on a plane or in a long line at the post office. The first two are easy. Most people answer quickly, smile and look away. But the third question will make them sit up and beg. It’s like whispering to a sleeping dog, “Wanna treat?” If you’re lucky, the stranger will become a friend.
Few things say as much about who we are as the place where we grew up and the ways we define “home.”
Recently, a kind soul sent me a link to a website (www.onlyinyourstate.com) that featured a story about Landrum, S.C., the small town where I grew up. It was mostly photos of the area with brief captions. But the headline gave me pause: “The Fascinating Town In South Carolina That Is Straight Out Of A Fairy Tale.”
A fairy tale? Really? One like “Hansel and Gretel”?
Of course not. It meant the kind of fairy tale that’s about a beautiful place with good, caring people, not the kind in which small children fear being eaten.
Landrum is indeed a beautiful place with good, caring people. Growing up there was a gift. I see that now more clearly than I did back then. Home, like most things we love, is easily taken for granted until it’s gone, and there’s no getting it back.
The website story highlighted Landrum’s restaurants and antique shops, most of which opened long after I left town to marry and raise a family in Pacific Grove, Calif. That’s my second home, another beautiful place with good, caring people.
I like antique shops and I love great restaurants. I am happy to frequent them whenever I visit Landrum. But that’s never my reason for visiting. Sometimes I go for class reunions. Too often I go for funerals. But mostly I go to reconnect with two of the things that are essential to who I am: The people and the land.
The people include remnants of my family _ my sister and brother, nieces, nephews and cousins still living in the area _ but also, old friends that I grew up with. If I’m there on a Sunday, I go to the First Baptist Church, sit in a back pew, belt out the hymns and look for faces that light up when they see me.
I remember the kindnesses that were lavished upon me as a child in that church. The smiles, the hugs, the sense of welcome and belonging. The patient and wise answers to all my endless questions. The food box that was brought to our door the Christmas my stepfather was out of work. The college scholarship I won, thanks to the efforts of a deacon and his wife.
In those days, in a town like Landrum, you could be poor and not always feel it. Most people worked in the mills and made ends meet, more or less, about the same. Those who had wealth never flaunted it. My friends’ families had more than mine. But I always felt at home in their homes. I still do.
Then there’s the land. It’s both my family and my friend. I close my eyes, sink my toes in its red dirt, feel the breeze off the lake and smell the soul soothing scent of honeysuckle. I hear the rumble of thunder, see a storm come rolling over Hogback Mountain, and wish with all my heart that you could see it, too.
The land and its people always welcome me “home.”
I would say similar things about my other “homes”_ the coast of California, where I raised my children, and the desert outside Las Vegas, where I’ve spent the past 10 years. They are beautiful places with good, caring people.
I’ll bet your hometown is, too.
The earth is our home and its people are our family. To know that is to never feel alone _ to never truly be a stranger.
And what do we owe in return for such fine gifts?
Not much. Just to treasure and enjoy and take good care of them.