Syd takes voice lessons in the city. Every time I drive her into the quaint neighborhood that curves around the James River, my heart quickens. The old frame houses huddle like unique old relatives at a reunion, snug in the shadow of the glass and metal buildings shining just across the river. It appeals to me.
I was born in a small town in western Pennsylvania. Until I started first grade, we lived “in town”. It was considered a great escape to get out to the country, living on five acres next to my aunt, uncle and grandparents in the new house my parents’ built. It was a good life out there, but something was formed in me during those first few years that has never left. Memories of living in Franklin – in town – are stitched on my heart.
Narrow city streets and sidewalks, houses built at the turn of the century or earlier. A massive courthouse and city parks, a library within walking distance. Quintessential small town life.
I’ve always felt like a small town girl.
These days, I’m out in a rural county about 30 miles from Richmond. It’s a large county, too spread out to offer much of that small town, walk-about feel. We have the county seat – and the County Seat Restaurant – and you can walk to the Y or the library from there. But there’s precious little housing available in the courthouse area, and most of us live spread out all over the place. It doesn’t feel like a small town.
A few weeks ago Tony and I had lunch at Karen’s City Diner in Richmond. As we navigated the neighborhood, I said, “You know, if anything ever happens to you, I’m moving to the city…” He smiled and nodded. I’ve said that before. I’m committed to raising my kids where they are – the public schools are excellent and this is home for them. Tony loves the rural lifestyle.
But I go into the city and drive through neighborhoods with houses rich in character, neighborhood grocers and diners, linear blocks and corner bus stops and something in me just quickens. Every time I go to town, my heart stirs. I can imagine a life in the city; walking to the market every day, the feeling of everything close at hand, the energy of so much of life in such close proximity. What intrigues me is what’s going on behind all those closed doors, in the hearts and heads of the people walking up and down the street, in between the boys and girls in love, holding hands as they stroll past the front porches. So much life, it seems.
Tonight was no different. I dropped Syd off and then just drove around for a while, discovering where the streets wound, how the weirdly angled intersection resolved, what the local Oriental market looked like. I watched the people moving around as I cruised with the flow of traffic. I pictured myself there, in one of the houses that was for sale, perched on a stoop with a cup of coffee.
It leaves this odd taste of nostalgia in my head. I know it’s tied to my earliest memories, to black and white photos of me posed on a sprawling front porch of a three-story mansion on Elk Street. I know it’s something as closely tied to imagination and wonder as it is to real estate and quality of life in 2010. I know there’s a little “grass is always greener” yearning in me. I don’t quite trust it, but there’s this feeling that my life would be somehow more authentic if I lived in the city, if I got back to being “in town”.
Tonight, though, something occurred on the drive home. It surprised me. As we headed west, we navigated the six-laned Midlothian Turnpike through the city limits and into Chesterfield County. Strip malls, development, small businesses, fast food; out of the charm of the city and into the sad, bruised facade of old urban sprawl. Stop lights and shopping malls. Ugly.
We reached the western side of Chesterfield, the place where the development just seemed to stop and the clutter tapered off. The car crested a small rise in the road and I saw open spaces, green trees, blue skies.
Involuntarily, I sighed. And a word came to my mind spontaneously, unbidden.
Home. I was headed home. It was there, out there in those wide open spaces.
I was ready for it, anticipating it. I just didn’t realize it.
In the grocery store tonight, I ran into five different people that I know in the community. There were hugs, or smiles, or small waves. Conversations. Questions about the kids. I never go anywhere here that I don’t see someone I know – not just a vague recognition, but someone I know well enough to stop and say “hi”. I’ve lived here for just shy of six years now – longer than I have lived ANYWHERE in my adult life.