Thursday, April 23, 2009

When your Hometown is no longer Home

One of the truest clichés ever repeated: Home is where the Heart is. My home is with the Love of my life. Wherever he goes, so goes my heart. Home could be in a big city, a small town, or to quote an old Saturday Night Live gag, in a Van down by the River. Also true, though is that as the people you love live their own lives, and eventually to go to their eternal destination, your heart seems to split a little. Mine now resides partially in Arkansas, Texas, Florida, and in paradise.

            Your hometown, though, is another matter. This locale is defined during childhood. Remembering and cherishing it doesn’t diminish the places you live later, or make it any harder to feel at home wherever you are. It’s just that the environment that most influenced your growing up years will always be special, no matter where else you end up.

            When you return to your hometown, you have a longing to see the old familiar spots. It’s a little hard to adjust to seeing them in more rundown condition, or even completely gone. But, in a way, you’re pleased about the changes. You want to know that things will continue, with new vitality. A town can retain its character regardless of the people who come and go, the places that are torn down and replaced.

            I grew up in Pittsburg(without the “h”) Kansas. When I was a teenager there, one of our favorite activities was “cruising” up and down the main street at night, honking and waving, and just having a good time wasting gasoline. We would start at the north end of town at the Sonic, proceed south past the high school, through the heart of downtown, ending up in a grocery store parking lot just before we reached the college campus. There, we might stop for awhile, to see who had a new car, or who had added something to really spruce up the old one. We might sit on our hoods or lean against another car to visit. Of course, the police used a different, more sinister sounding word: loitering. This of course, could not be allowed, so we jumped back in and headed north for the Sonic again.

            Returning recently, I was pleased to see that now that my generation is in charge, this town has improved on the old tradition. On the particular Saturday night I was there, a makeshift sign in front of an old Wal-Mart advertised a “car show”. The current residents are evidently authorized to stop and proudly run a chamois over their new paint job. Good things come to he who waits!

            It was also good to see old names on businesses, in the same location as when I was young. The third or fourth generation of the family must still be dedicated to keeping a good thing going. Also evident was the pride that the townspeople still had in valuable assets like the public library, the municipal auditorium, the band shell in the park.

            Of course, the people who never left the old hometown can help to make us feel welcome when we return. Good friends Hilma and Charlene certainly reminded me that the years that have passed can become meaningless over a cup of tea and cheerful reconnecting. There are other places where time completely stands still. During a worship service at my old church, nothing significant had changed. The comfort of common beliefs and traditions make us truly feel like we belong, no matter how many years between visits.

            Today, in what seems a frequent topic for this column, one of our favorite Ouachita hometowns has been devastated by the forces of nature. Folks in Arkadelphia can certainly identify with their neighbors in Mena, as can the residents of Greensburg, Kansas. Even after grieving for the lives that were lost, there will be a long, painful process of rebuilding. Many old landmarks that rekindle memories for current and former residents are now gone, or substantially altered. But, will the spirit of the town remain?

            From past experience, the answer seems to be a resounding “Yes”. The very first Sunday after the terrible tornado ripped through the heart of town, worshipers celebrated Easter Sunday. What better symbol of hope, of resurrection? The strong faith of the survivors will be the driving force behind the rebuilding process.

            Those of us who don’t live nearby are also experiencing a familiar feeling of helplessness. What can we do? First of all, we can pray. God’s intervention and his peace will be invaluable to all who are working to help Mena come back. Secondly, we can watch for appeals from the proper agencies. They will need help: physical labor, materials, and money. Each of us should be able to find some way to contribute. As in Greensburg, those drops in the bucket will come together to make a difference.

             As we learned after Katrina, the population of the town may also change. Folks may need to go elsewhere for jobs and living arrangements, and then decide if they can rebuild on the same site. Regardless, the spirit of the community will live on. Ouachita residents will continue to work together, and our hometowns will continue to hold a very special place in our hearts.



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