By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3
I went home last weekend – not my current home but the first place I ever knew as home – a little town in southern Arkansas called Stuttgart. I’d planned to make the trip with Jennifer, who I have been friends with since 5th grade. We were planning to attend a funeral for a dear family friend.
Something came up at the last minute that prevented Jennifer from traveling, so Tom said he’d go with me instead. I was grateful for his company because heavy rain combined with the rhythmic hum of the interstate is enough to make any driver drowsy.
But I perked up when we came within 10 miles of our destination. I hadn’t been back to my hometown in more than seven years – since the day my parents packed up and moved to my current city. When we reached the rice fields on the outskirts of town, the perfectly flat, vivid green expanse felt just right – like my oldest, most comfy pair of blue jeans.
I spotted the town’s skyline from several miles away. Even though Stuttgart is a town just shy of 10,000 people, it has always loomed large on the horizon, often tricking newcomers into thinking it’s a much larger city than it is. From a distance, the town’s rice mills tower above everything else, like agricultural skyscrapers keeping watch at the city limits.
As we passed by the sign welcoming us to town, I leaned forward in my seat, anxious to see what may have changed since I’d been there. The little church building where I’d spent so many Sundays was still there, though the church itself had closed after many of its members moved or passed away.
The hospital was still open but had changed names. The “new neighborhoods” I remembered being built in the 1980s suddenly looked like old ones, a little run-down and dated – a condition I’m learning to empathize with as time goes by. We turned the corner at the first stoplight and headed toward the heart of town. The Dairy Queen had become a barbecue joint. The coolest place to buy blue jeans had become a diner serving plate lunches.
But the drugstore on the corner of Main Street was still right where I left it and had the same colorful sign painted on the side of the brick building. Someone had refreshed it with brighter, bolder colors. The Sonic where my friends and I used to strategically park so we could see who else was “dragging Main” was also there and had undergone a modern facelift. The dental office had become a veterinarian clinic. And the town’s oldest hamburger joint had transformed into something called “Mr. Pancho.”
I pointed out each change as we passed by, a running commentary Tom was kind enough to endure. After all, I couldn’t expect him to be nearly as devastated as Jennifer would have been to see that they’d torn down the Pizza Hut. He didn’t know how many plans we’d made while sitting in those emerald green booths scarfing down breadsticks, imagining what our lives would become after high school.
Finally, we drove down the street I’d listed as my home address for the first 18 years of life. We slowed down as we passed by my old house, marveling at how much it had changed since my parents had moved. New siding. New color. New windows. But my mother’s showy rose bush still stands tall under the kitchen window, as glorious as it ever was. Changes can be good but it’s a comfort when some things stay the same.
Author Thomas Wolfe is famous for writing a novel called “You Can’t Go Home Again.” My brief visit back “home” made me decide that he was mostly right – but only because “home” is more than just a place. It’s a point in time that’s impossible to revisit. A town changes and ages and gives birth to new things, just as its residents do. Maybe that’s exactly the way it should be.
Nevertheless, I’m still a little bummed about the Pizza Hut. Pass the breadsticks.
Gwen Rockwood is a syndicated freelance columnist. Email her at email@example.com. Her book is available on Amazon.