Distant Trains and Matching Luggage
A short time ago, I visited the midwestern town where I grew up. This is a not-so-rare occurrence for most people, but up until last year, I’d been away for over 20 years. Sure, it’s my hometown and all, but I have a hard time considering it home. I’ve put down roots in so many other places that in some ways I feel almost nomadic. But there is always that one special place…
I travel with a red and black duffel bag — nothing terribly exciting, but it stands out in a crowd – so when I saw a duffel coming ‘round the bend, sportin’ my colors, I instinctively reached down to grab it. Then I stopped. It wasn’t my bag. But it did have my last name embroidered on it, in 3” tall letters. My last name isn’t that common, so seeing it in print is a little bit odd, and seeing it in print, spelled correctly, is a rare treat indeed. But seeing it in print, on someone else’s luggage, at a baggage carousel surrounded by 30 people, at most, is just plain disconcerting.
Another duffel came around the bend, this time a blue one. Same embroidery, same last name. So I looked around to see who claimed them, and over in the corner was a vaguely familiar face — it was my great-uncle Ed Gruchalla, and two of his kids. Or one of his kids and a spouse. Or something. Honestly, I was a bit flustered and I forgot everyone’s first names as soon as I heard them. If it wasn’t for all the lawn signs announcing Ed’s run for office, I probably wouldn’t have remembered his name, either.
Dealing with strangers is a pretty awkward thing for me. I don’t do well with meeting them, let alone introducing myself to them, so while on the outside I was all cheerful and businesslike and said something along the lines of, “Hello there, I couldn’t help but notice that your suitcase has my last name on it, and as you well know it’s not a common name at all, so I thought I’d say hi,” what I was feeling inwardly was more along the lines of “Zzzzzzzzzzzz flibbert-snort garfnaggle brot flibbidy-hoo.”
Outside articulation is a particular skill of mine. I can make myself seem very clear and eloquent. The only problem is that I really have no idea what I’m saying; it’s like I’m rambling on while in a fugue state.
So there was that.
I don’t really have any other stories to tell from my hometown, which I guess is both good and bad. Even with that one new-found connection, I still wish that it was more of a “hometown” and less of a “place where a good friend still lives,” because I think then it would be a bit more of a welcoming experience. As it stands now, I feel a tie to just one house and one remaining friend, rather than to the city itself.
Most of the places I knew and held dear are gone now, old hangouts have closed, old landmarks are gone, and even that bastion of security — grandma’s house — was razed after a devastating series of floods.
While out running errands, I showed my friend the railroad overpass that was built on the spot that used to be my family’s home — it was built by my great grandpa, I think, and passed down. The story is a bit fuzzy, but as I know it, the house was ours, but the land belonged to the railroad, and in matters of train vs. human, the train will always win. The cottonwood tree is still standing, though, which made me strangely sad. It was the tallest tree in the neighborhood, and I remember playing around it as a child, and seeing it still there, with the houses and barn and other outbuildings gone was… just not quite right.
One morning, though, I got up early and went out on the front porch and just sat and listened to the wind rustling through the trees. I don’t often hear that kind of wind here in Seattle — not that specific, leaf-crackling wind. There were train whistles in the distance, and I had hot coffee and a warm sweater but kept my feet bare so that I could feel the autumnal chill. That moment made me truly feel at home again. It was a moment with my name on it.
PHOTO BY THE AUTHOR