I went home recently, for the first time in seven years.
To Cleveland, to see my dad, who has dementia. I wanted to sit and talk to him while he still could, to hear him tell stories while he still could, to tell him how much I love him while he can still understand it. To hug his wife and thank her for taking care of him.
To do all the things you think you should do because you’ve heard from too many people about their regrets – parents who died suddenly or family members who were estranged or people who were just too stubborn.
I didn’t say all the things I wanted to say – I couldn’t for a lot of reasons. Sometimes because I didn’t think I could even get the words out without crying too hard for anyone to understand me. Sometimes because I was angry at life and what decades of hard living does to someone and couldn’t be gracious inside.
You don’t go home to fight, and I didn’t.
I just went to bear witness to his life, and mine, and ours.
The road in front of the house I was born to is heaving concrete, weeds and low three-bedroom houses from the late 1950s. It’s in the flight path of the airport, past auto plants running at half their old capacity, if that, and shuttered businesses.
My old neighbor sat on her front steps, petting a huge orange cat, waiting for me to pull up. It would have been so easy to cancel, to say, no, it’s all just too much to cram into a short visit, and when I saw her sitting there, I was so grateful I hadn’t. We talked. We looked at a scrapbook about her son, who died when he was 29. We talked about her kids and her husband and my parents and my sisters. She’s lived there since 1961. She knocked on the door of another neighbor who has been there that long and she came out on the step.
I can’t explain how weird it was to be surrounded by people who know me, who know things about me and remember things about my life that I don’t. I’ve been in Sioux Falls for nearly 18 years now, longer than anywhere else, but it still fascinates me when I try to think about how layered this town would be for me if I grew up here. You would see, all the time, people from every part of your life.
I never see that. I just see them from this part. This post-college, professional life part.
Not the parts that made me, or saved me, or scared me.
We stayed for about two hours, drove into the next neighborhood to buy authentic pierogis and stuffed cabbage, kolaches and cookies. I stuck the pierogis to the pans when I cooked them for my dad, but he didn’t complain. The next day my aunt and cousin came, and I texted them, “You have to cook these, I butchered the first batch.”
They laughed and used three times as much butter as I did, and the sauerkraut and potato pierogis were golden and crispy and the best thing I’ve eaten in a long, long time.
I drove through Ohio down to Athens, in the southeastern part of the state, where I went to Ohio University and graduated in 1998, after spending five years there earning a degree in English.
We ate kolaches and listened to polka music on Ohio public radio on the drive.
“Why are all the lyrics in polka music about polka,” Patrick asked.
It’s a good question. I don’t know the answer. Why not?
It turned to classic rock to bluegrass as we made our way down the state, into the rolling green hills of southeastern Ohio.
I won’t bore you with details of everywhere we went down my own college memory lane, but I wanted to write about the Hocking Hills. It’s just a state park area down there, in an area full of state parks and national forests. It’s all rocky outcroppings and exposed roots, water trickling through the bottom and falling over ledges.
It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, tucked away in these winding roads.
It’s local bluegrass covers of Bob Dylan songs, and camping and hiking and getting stung by a bee once in the hand while at the bottom of the trail. It’s dusk sitting on the ledge. It’s eating takeout Chinese food in the car on the way there, or hauling a tent out to a walk-in site one summer evening.
It was a place I went to at a time when everything was opening up to me – a world of being outdoors and eating local food and learning how to cook and reading, so much reading. When for the first time I felt at home.
I was on the plane coming home, and I felt so clichéd, so ridiculous with all these feelings about having been back, and then I realized there’s a reason coming of age novels are so popular – it’s a classic story, one we’ve all been through. And I think it happens more than once in your life, that moment or place where everything stops and something new starts.
For me, the first time was there, in Athens, Ohio, in the Hocking Hills just outside, on those winding roads with public radio playing.
There’s a line in an Avett Brothers song, “The road is gone / I can’t go back the way we came.” It’s about the end of a marriage, and I was about to write that it’s not coming of age, but that’s its own awakening, I think, that sort of major life overhaul.
As I hiked through the state park, I thought about all the things I learned to do in southeastern Ohio – mountain biking, cooking, camping. And I thought about how those have all translated through my life.
This time when I was there, I had on a pair of trail shoes and had packed clothes to run there. It didn’t work out that way – instead I connected with an old friend and she brought her daughter and we made slow and beautiful progress through the trees.
But if it hadn’t been for those woods, and for countless woods after, from Newton Hills to Zumbro to miles of meditation at Good Earth, I wouldn’t be where I am. And I’m glad I could go back and let the tears run down my face in the Hocking Hills and know that this is part of what made me.
And I like that place, this place, this spot in my life. Every day I try to remind myself to be grateful, to remember to be happy, to appreciate. To marvel at the kids growing up before my eyes. To hold Patrick’s hand and share that moment of intimacy in a crowd. To laugh hard, really hard, at a story my cousin told while we sat around the patio table at my dad’s house, to watch him watch us, seeing his family full of joy, while he can still recognize it.
To recognize it myself.
Jacqueline Palfy is a longtime runner, reader and writer, marathoner, mom and board member of the nonprofit Sioux Falls Area Running Club. Her contributions to the 605 Running Co. blog will appear every other Tuesday. You can follow her on Twitter @runnerJPK or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Story ideas are encouraged.