chicago, childhood, memories, texas

what makes a “home” town?

Updating my Meetup profile today, I noticed I’d listed Chicago as my hometown.

That’s not right, I thought. It’s where you lived a long time, but not your hometown.

Which got me to thinking.

I spent most of my adult life in the Chicago metropolitan area, about half in the suburbs and half in the city proper. I only spent eight years in Texas, all of it as a child. And there’s the rub.

As much as I feel comfortable in Chicago and “grew up” (to an adult) there, it’s not what I consider home.

Home is the place where I rode my bike through muddy ravines in the summertime and stood in the hot sun for marching band practice and floated down rivers in inner tubes. It’s where I had my first kiss and suffered my first heartache, where I had my first big dreams and said my first goodbyes. It’s where I can visit like the palm of my hand even though a thousand things are gone: Winn’s Five and Dime, the old Brauntex movie house, the bowling alley by the middle school, the taqueria my father would take me to for breakfast tacos before school. It’s where the roads stay the same even if the buildings don’t, where Oma’s Haus still offers the opportunity to do the chicken dance in the bier garden on the weekends. It’s where the hundreds of things I found provincial and embarrassing 20 years ago have turned into precious memories of an almost-forgotten existence.

To be sure, Chicago has some of those things for me too. The old Avalon that was turned into a game room and now I don’t know what it is. The Thirsty Whale and dating boys in bands called silly names, like Sarcophagus. Seeing $3 budget Q101 shows and throwing myself into the pit thinking steel-toed combat boots would save me from everything. Great America before it was Six Flags. The Field Museum before it was a “campus,” using tokens on the CTA and locking the car doors driving through Cabrini Green or past the old Chicago Stadium.

There are memories in both places, all places I’ve lived (even those mere nine months in Appleton, Wisconsin, driving my 1968 Firebird convertible to work at the newspaper at 4am, playing in a kiddie pool with two-year-old W in the front yard, watching The English Patient in the basement theater). I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t gather memories with me as I went along; even moving to NYC, I already had a book’s worth of stories and memories and adventures here, and not just because I’d dated NYC men who’d shown me the ropes.

But childhood is different.

It reminds me of studying stories of “the old country” in graduate school. There’s a phenomenon in which people who emigrate always keep in their mind a picture of what “the old country” is like. Not was like. Is like. Because even if 5, 20, 70 years have passed, it’ll always be — to them — what it was when they left.

Having my childhood so delineated — Elmhurst IL until I was 8, then Texas until I left home — gives me a perspective on it that I don’t think a lot of my peers have. Many of them have stayed in Texas, continuing their lives there as I imagine it doesn’t occur to them not to. Which is great. It just wasn’t what I wanted to do.

But in many ways, Texas is like my “old country.” Actually, in many ways it hasn’t changed, so my memories of it probably hold true in a way that someone moving to NYC from Russia in 1928 and talking in 1972 wouldn’t experience. No matter. I’m not going to stop telling myself I know Texas. (My father still lives there, offering a small entree into the existing world there.)

In any case, it was a little startling today to realize that Chicago was “just” a place I lived for a long time. It might have been where I was born — actually, that would be Berwyn (insert Svengoolie here) — and where I got married (twice) and had my babies, but it’s not my hometown. Not by far.

This is fairly amazing to me, given how for so very long I’ve run away from all things Texas. I’ve always acknowledged that it’s where I grew up and on Facebook it’s front and center. But I never appreciated, fully, how much it’s actually a part of me that I don’t want to give away any time soon. Or, really, ever.