When I’d nearly reached my grandparents’ house on Saturday, I took a look at the Wyoming Valley that lay below me just before I turned onto Interstate 81. Maybe it was just the late-winter malaise of bare trees and a sky that hadn’t been penetrated by afternoon sunshine yet, but everything looked a little tired and also not-quite-familiar, though I spent the first twenty-three years of my life in northeastern Pennsylvania. I didn’t exactly grow up in Bruce Springsteen’s “The River,” but it always hit a little too close to (if you will) home, and when I inquire about the local economy when I go back there, I always get the same answer: there aren’t enough good jobs, we thought we’d do better than our parents did, we’re barely keeping up. And the Valley itself looked that way as I turned: a long-defunct mill here, the ghost of the demolished Huber Breaker and the asbestos traces it may have left behind there.
But that’s just to set the scene and explain why I didn’t get to church this weekend. And while it might be true that, as John Mulaney explained about the Catholic Church, “They have them out of town,” on Sunday morning I was measuring pastel M&Ms into tiny organza bags for favors for my sister’s wedding shower before I’d even finished my first cup of coffee. Maybe this was my way of keeping the Sabbath, honoring my mother: writing all the place cards so they’d all be in the same handwriting, tying ribbons around jar candles.
So I didn’t get to church. On Saturday I went to visit my grandparents, Gram and Coach, eighty-seven and still living in their own house, surrounded by the beautifully landscaped yard my grandfather still tends himself. Gram cooked a full meal and served it in actual serving dishes on a beautifully set table, of course, and after lunch Coach walked my dad and I around the yard. “They’re going to bring the tiller back here,” he said, indicating the place where the rose garden had been when I was growing up, “and I’m going to put in perennials, as many as I can fit.” I remembered looking at the rose catalogs, learning all the names: American Beauty, Double Delight, Sterling Silver, Queen Elizabeth.
I asked the name of the small blue-purple flowers that had just begun to blossom along the side of the house, the leaves dark green and broad like ivy (“Periwinkle,” Coach reminded me); we lamented the long failure of a hydrangea and looked for the beginnings of the return of the Siberian iris. The daffodils weren’t far off, but the bouquet on the kitchen table had come from my cousin Trinka’s garden in Virginia. So things are growing, even in the Valley, due as it always is for a comeback.
The next day I did the aforementioned women’s work of helping with the bridal shower preparations, this for my sister of whose birth I learned at the bus stop on the way home from school on the last day of second grade before Christmas vacation. The food was delicious, I ate too much of it, and I made a fairly hasty exit, always afraid of Sunday evening traffic coming back into the city. The shower was a little out of the way, and I asked Google Maps for the best route out of town; it took me down Alden Mountain Road, a twisty-turny back road I couldn’t remember ever having driven. Even in the late-winter browns and greys, it was pretty, and easy to imagine in green. It was sparsely populated until I got closer to the highway, driving through Nuangola towards Dorrance—towns that always sounded so far away on the rare instances that I’d see them as a child because we so rarely had occasion to drive south, such that even now I’m surprised to find them a mere fifteen or twenty minutes away. The world seems so large when you’re young.
And there’s so much time when you’re young—nothing but time, even when the town feels small. There’s never enough time when I go home. I like having a few days, when I can have a drink with my dear friend Emily who still lives in the Valley, or pancakes with my philosophy advisor from college; when I can go for a run along the river or even just take the long way back to the city, through Bear Creek and Blakeslee.
I went to a different home all the same, the one I chose and still choose, where my husband and my cats and my church are. And I was happy to go there. But when I call two different places “home,” it doesn’t quite feel like a mistake or an inconsistency. Robert Frost called home the place “where, when you have to go there,/they have to take you in.” It’s true when I walk into my grandparents’ or my mom’s house without knocking, and true when I open the double doors of my six-story, full-city-block-wide apartment building with my own key, and true when I come to church early for choir practice (most) every week. The Valley may be tired; our building may have a problem with packages being swiped from time to time or neighbors forgetting to clear out the lint traps; our church might need a new everything at this point, roof and elevator and (literally) kitchen sink. Home remains, when you have to go there.