An Autumn sunset over Lake Somerset in Pennsylvania
*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, November 27, 2008
Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey
“Where are you from?”
This is a question that usually sparks an immediate response. For most of us, there is that one piece of geography from which we sprung, where family resides and memories lie thickly upon the land, like an autumn fog. It’s the place that when we think of it, brings a sense of joy; of belonging; of identity. This slightly abridged quote from George Eliot which appeared at the beginning of the Civil War epic “Gods and Generals” helps define the idea:
A human life, I think, should be well-rooted in some area of native land where it may get the love of tender kinship, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference. The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one's own homestead.
- George Eliot
For Pennsylvanians, especially those around here, the crenellated terrain of the Laurel Highlands is home. Many who live around here can trace their familial lineage back several generations without leaving Cambria or Somerset Counties. For them, the old Mexican adage rings true: "Mis raíces estan aquí." Which roughly translates as, “My roots are buried here.”
But home is not just a place on a map; its not just where you happen to be. It’s where you’re from, the place that brings a smile and a sense of belonging when you go there. It is a place of love and warmth, a shelter from the storms of life. There, we can drop the mask we are so often forced to wear. There, we can unshoulder the burdens we’ve had to bear. There, we know we are safe. It is truly defined as a place of the heart.
We’re now moving into the time of year when thoughts of “home” drift to the forefront of our consciousness. Thanksgiving and Christmas are traditionally when families gather, whether from just down the road, or from across the globe. In fact, one might make the case that for many devoted families, the literal meaning behind those holidays is not as important as is "The Gathering." For a few precious days, we rekindle the love and connections; we laugh, play and break bread. We share our separate lives with each other. And when we part, we take with us a treasured collection of happy memories.
My family has always had a sense of rootlessness. Even before I was married, I had already lived in Tennessee, California, and Missouri, three distinctly different areas. Since my wife and I were wed, we’ve lived in Missouri twice, Hawaii, California, Virginia, and now Pennsylvania. When people ask me “Where’s home?” I usually reply, “Wherever the motorcycle’s parked,” to which my wife readily responds, “What am I? Chopped liver?”
I’ve spent most of my life in Missouri. But when I go there, I don’t feel any particular sense of belonging or connection. Since both of my parents passed away, that sense of disconnect has deepened.
I’m not trolling for sympathy here, because I’ve always had a fascination for the possibilities of what lies beyond the horizon. I get restless if I’m in one place for too long, which partially explains my fascination (or obsession, if you prefer) with motorcycles. My wife, in sharp contrast, is from Hawaii and has a very deep spiritual connection to the islands. Her very large family still lives there and gathers frequently, an experience she misses more than she’s willing to admit. She goes back at least once every year or two around New Years and spends a couple of weeks basking in the love of her family, much the same way others bask in the warm tropical sun. We don’t let that apparent contradiction divide us. I understand her need for roots, as she understands my lack of concern for them.
For me, "home" is not so much a place as a state of mind. As the holidays approach and our family begins to gather from their own far-flung homes, I know I will feel that sense of belonging, that quiet feeling of peace and joy I get when I look around the room and see the glowing faces of our family reunited.
My roots are not buried here; in fact, they're not buried anywhere. My roots, such as they are, are interwoven with the unassailable bonds of family. Wherever we gather, there lies my home.