Friday, April 21, 2017

Roots: When is a hometown really a hometown?

My wife Liz and I have lived in Augusta, Maine, for close to 30 years. We own a house here. Both of us have made a living here. We have experienced life's joys and sorrows here. We like the place, and feel attached to it.

But I would never describe Augusta as my hometown.

“Hometown” can be defined in a couple of different ways, I suppose, including the place where you live. The most meaningful definition, though, is the place where you were born, the town where you grew up.

Although I haven’t lived there for four decades, my hometown is, and always will be, Southbridge, Massachusetts.

It’s not a famous town, or especially picturesque, although it has a handsome Victorian business district, a beautiful library and its share of impressive churches. Located on the Massachusetts-Connecticut border, Southbridge is a working-class community of triple deckers and modest, tidy, single-family homes, far from the bustle of Boston.

All in all, it’s a fairly anonymous place, really, a small, ethnically diverse factory town. Whenever I meet people and the conversation turns to hometowns, folks confuse Southbridge with Stockbridge, Mass., a town made famous by artist Norman Rockwell, or Sturbridge, Mass., the home of Old Sturbridge Village, the living-history museum. Southbridge's biggest claim to fame is that it once was one of the world's largest centers of optical manufacturing. Hence its description of itself on the town seal as the eye of the commonwealth. (Massachusetts is one of four states, along with Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Virginia, that insist on the grandiose title of "commonwealth." But I digress.)

No, people don’t have much cause to know anything about Southbridge. Unless they grew up there. For those of us who did, it’s a special place simply because it’s our place, and an integral part of our lives, if only in memory.

That’s how it is with hometowns. We love them, not for what they are in any objective sense, but for what they represent to each of us, individually. Whether you hail from Paris, France, or Paris, Maine, a hometown is a hometown, and to the people who claim it as their own, each one is as special as the next.

Which brings me back to Augusta, Maine. After I trudge up our hill at 5 a.m. every day with our chocolate lab, Aquinnah, I turn around for the return trip down to the house. The appealing vista before me says that this is a good place, even if it isn't my place.

The lights of the city twinkle on the far side of the Kennebec River. Dominating the scene is the lighted dome of the Maine State House, a mile away. Although I can't see it from my vantage point, I know that Old Fort Western, the oldest wooden fort in America, is closer still, only about half a mile from where I stand.

Augusta is a fine place. I'm happy to call it home. But my hometown is far away.

No comments:

Post a Comment