I live in the town I grew up in, less than a mile from the house I grew up in and my parents' current home and the elementary school I attended. And I'll admit that sometimes I enjoy the parallel experiences, the flash of memory that comes as I set ice cream in front of my daughter at the green picnic table outside Dairy Queen and remember doing the same for my sister the summer I was thirteen and babysitting her while my mother worked, or the familiar crunch of gravel under my feet as I carried my toddler to the concession stand at the same drive-in where my cousin Richie and I watched the Planet of the Apes movies side-by-side in early childhood. But the sad fact is, this isn't home.
Home, in my mind, is the little town my daughter grew up in. It's a place of Christmas walks where you know everyone on the street and local businesses owned by your neighbors and restaurants that aren't franchises. It's only 40 miles away, but traveling there is more like journeying back in time than a 45-minute commute. We don't visit very often. Even when we lived there, most of my friends were in the suburbs--I'd grown up here and I worked here. And the years between 3rd grade and 8th are big ones; my daughter has lost touch with most of her childhood friends as well.
But every once in a while, she'll turn to me late at night and say, "It's a good night for a drive." It's always a cool, summery night, and it's always well after dark. Last night, she followed that up with "We could take the dog. He's never been there." The "there" made me smile; apparently, all drives end in the same place.
So just after 10 p.m. we gathered the dog and the cord that attaches Tori's iPod to the car radio and bottles of water and hit the road. First stop, always, is Tori's elementary school playground. It's small and quiet and the grass is soft, and we both have fond memories of our first late-night visit there, when Tori hadn't yet started school and she and my sister and I played on the swings in the dark and talked about her upcoming kindergarten days.
The place is changing, but slowly. It hasn't yet been overrun with franchises and look-alike signs. A new video store has moved in; Tom & Jerry's has moved across the street. The school has done some new landscaping. But the late-night sounds are the same: frogs and trains and a slight breeze in the trees. The parking lot where I drew fake sidewalks in blue chalk so that Tori could learn to turn corners on her two-wheeler still stands open and welcoming; the pier at the tiny lake is just as rickety and yet somehow always holds. Our church is unchanged, and at midnight there are four or five cars in the lot--something I've never seen in the suburbs. The swimming pool where we sat day after day when Tori wanted desperately to learn how to swim but was too frightened by her early "drowning" experience to jump in (and where she eventually let me hold her in the water, and then jumped into my waiting arms, and then one day swam to the deep end and back all alone) still carries the same soft scent of chlorine and sunshine.
But more important than the specific places, more important than the way the town moves more slowly and appears to exist in an earlier era, is the way walking its quiet streets carries us back. My daughter is 14 now, but on her grade-school playground we both touch, for a moment, the days when she walked by my side, holding my hand and looking up and me and talking about her day on the way home from kindergarten.