One word or ten: an unlabeled map

an unlabeled map  2By Wendy Hodges11901009_10200693202047887_1262149286_o

“Opelika is my favorite continent and is located at the center of the Universe.” I was stunned when my first grade teacher marked this answer with a big red “X.” This poor woman, who was one of my favorite people on Earth, did not have a clue about geography. How did she become a teacher? Over time I learned how to label my blank map of the world. I could name all the continents and oceans and color them neatly. I even learned all 50 states and Opelika’s place in them. And yet, somehow, the tiny black dot I drew close to the Georgia line in Lee County did not do my hometown justice. Opelika was so much more.

Home had well-worn streets that I watched slip behind us from my spot in the back of the car. The street names were unimportant. Everyone knew where anything important was located. I cannot count how many times I heard my mother give directions, “Just go past the Methodist church—you know the one where that preacher had that ‘situation’ with poor Miss Breedlove? Once you get to the blinking light, turn right. You’ll see that cute little shop with those precious skirts in the window, though how they’ll ever sell one of those at those prices is beyond me. Then take your first left and go until you see that big hole in the middle of the road—the paper said they would be fixin’ that one soon—but who knows? And our house is on the corner on the left. You can’t miss it.” She never even paused for a breath, and everyone always found us.

Opelika was our neighborhood—the good, the bad and the just plain weird. My friends and I spent most of our time playing outside alternating between acting out unscripted plays and avoiding Glenn the Bully. Our neighbors included Ms. Thompson who made the best peanut butter cookies. Her generosity knew no bounds. Another neighbor was Mr. Spain who rode his bike to work and seemed to joyously realize how lucky he was to be allowed beyond the stop sign into the bigger world. Then there was J. T. Bleeker who clearly was not from around here. My friends and I had a secret club consisting of three girls and a pitiful three-legged dog for a mascot whom we named Geneva after a street that I actually did know. It was the most beautiful name I had ever heard. At our first meeting, we gave ourselves official titles, planned to meet faithfully and took solemn oaths to keep all of our secrets safe. We solemnly swore to tending to the business of our club no matter how dangerous our missions would be. At our second meeting, we could not remember our official titles and admitted that we really did not know any secrets nor had we ever caught a whiff of danger lurking in our vast subdivision. We also admitted that Geneva was on his last leg. His odor was not going to improve with time. Eventually, I unnamed him. The name Geneva should be saved for my first-born or for a really beautiful cat.

Opelika was, ultimately, my family home and the voices that filled it. My brother and sister were 15 and 14 years older than I, respectively. So, in essence, I was an only child growing up in a home with four adults. And I couldn’t have been happier. There was always someone who had time to listen and to talk. Our house echoed with those conversations: my sister’s quiet, patient voice; my brother’s large laugh; my mother’s soothing words; and my dad’s muddled musings. This led directly to a vocabulary that surprised my teachers and friends. I knew a word (or ten) for everything. The best memories in that house are of the summer evenings when I finally tore myself away from my spot on the ground where I could watch the sky turn purple. I ate my supper and took a cool bath before stretching out on the soft living room carpet. My mother was usually still in the kitchen, cleaning away our supper; my dad read (i.e. snored) behind the paper and my sister dozed on the couch. It was my brother who shared the floor with me, the brother I knew was the strongest man in the world (I’d told my Sunday school teacher she’d gotten it wrong; Samson was not the rightful holder of that title). I knew we all were safe. The edges of everything would get soft and blurry. I would feel myself being carried to my room with the shy lavender walls and the bed with a valley where my body fit perfectly. I thought it would always be like that.

Of course, everything changes. Our family shifted and splintered. Opelika became smaller and smaller until I reached the age when I wanted to be everywhere all at once and anywhere but Opelika. My hometown became a place I thought I could be rid of, even should be rid of. When I graduated from high school and was able to “discover” other continents, I fell in love with the world. The possibilities seemed endless.

Yet, here I am. My home is in Opelika. The family that lives in my home is my own. The world is a different place. My children, like most others in our country, aren’t allowed to roam freely in our neighborhoods because there is danger out there. Instead of secret clubs, my children have e-friends and exchange cell phone numbers. We only know a few of our neighbors.

There are new streets whose names I have had to learn because the shop with the cute little skirts is not there anymore. I haven’t seen my secret club co-members in decades. No one in my old neighborhood has even heard of J.T. Bleeker. My parents’ house is empty, silent. Time and the world have changed Opelika and the people who live here. Moving back seems to have been a futile attempt to recapture the past.

At least I thought so until I began running into person after person who remembered either me or my family. Time after time, a friendly face would smile at me and ask that timeless question—“Don’t I know you?” And then we would fall back into the old patterns of “Oh, yes, I remember you” and “What year did you graduate?” and “How is your family?” Now there are even days when that old familiarity can be annoying or downright embarrassing. This fact was brought resoundingly home a couple of years ago when my son and I were involved in a car accident. The first few moments of that slow-motion memory are deathly quiet and eerie. But the next moment found me sitting on the curb with my son cradlin g his right arm. His collarbone was broken, and he was terrified. A kind face loomed close to tell me 911 had been called and then to ask, “Didn’t you used to date my cousin?” Before I could answer, the crowd parted to allow the paramedics to rush through. As the taller one thrust his stethoscope down my shirt, he said, “We were in the band together. Remember me?” I wanted to say, “Clarinets and trombones aside, please remove your hand from my chest.” But before I could, a truck went racing past, and a voice called, “Hey, Wendy! Whatcha’ doin’ on the side of the road?” Opelika is still too small for a hometown girl to bleed in peace.

Big or small, embarrassing or not, Opelika is my home. I can’t escape it no matter how far I fly or what language I learn. Nor do I want to. I’ve given up the struggle and don’t really remember why it was so important to be somewhere else, anywhere else, in the first place. What I wouldn’t give for one more summer evening with the people who taught me about the most important things.

Yesterday, my daughter brought home a blank map of the world. I watched her label the continents and oceans. Then she asked me where on the map was our home, and I told her this: It’s not on any map. It’s where you hear the voices you love and you know you are safe. And then we went outside to watch the sky turn purple before I carried her into her room to snuggle in the valley of her bed that is always waiting for her.

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