We came from Dallas and Dubuque, Joliet, Bennington, Shreveport and Grand Rapids. Alton, Illinois, and Warren, Ohio. Pittsburgh and Saint Louis and Walla Walla, Washington. These were our hometowns—and the answer to that question asked of all who come to Notre Dame: “Where ya from?”
Some of us had outgrown those places; some of us couldn’t wait to get out of town. We all were filled with the hopes and horizons promised by a new life at Notre Dame. We had left childhood behind. We stood at the threshold of tomorrow, the launch toward dreams, the beginning of the rest of our lives. It didn’t take long for those cities and towns to feel very far away, dropping into the past like booster rockets falling back to Earth—no longer needed—as the spacecraft sails splendidly toward outer space.
But in many ways we never left those hometowns behind. We carried those places with us. We brought those people along. Those were the places and people who had shaped us, molded us, made us who we were. And not only family and friends and teachers and coaches, but also Joe Watts, the barber, and Mr. Leone, the shoe repair man.
For me, growing up in Louisiana, it was also the woods around Lake Bistineau, the Confederate flag at the parish courthouse and the blacks living on the wrong side of the levee, and the legless man who pushed himself around on a little homemade cart selling bundled sticks of sassafras. It was Ruby Lee and Aljean Middleton, the soda fountain at Service Drug, cruising around on Friday nights—out Kings Highway to Youree Drive—and the girls who went to Captain Shreve High School. Mayhaw jelly, Southern Maid donuts, Cobb’s barbecue and the strawberry pies at Strawn’s. The sawmills and oil fields and swamplands. The state fair and stock car races. Playing baseball at Columbia Park, swimming in Red River, drinking alcoholic beverages—legally—at 18.
There were people—both named and nameless—who were the real-life characters in the tales we told to roommates. There were drive-ins and diners and late-night haunts that became the stage sets for memories and fictions. There was this geography that enriched our lives—the hometown experiences that at once made us all the same and each unique. No one else I knew in South Bend had walked the trestle high above Bayou Pierre in the pitch of night (train lights coming fast), but we all had had similar adventures of which we could boast. No one else had fallen off the kneeler during the consecration at Midnight Mass at Saint John Berchmans Church (the bang heard ’round the world), but we all had had embarrassing moments to confess.
I was one of the ones who couldn’t wait to get out of town. My flight to Notre Dame could not have come soon enough. Even in hindsight there were legitimate reasons for desiring escape. But it was not until roommates and friends asked about my funny accent and alligators, “Cajun queens” and crawfish that I wished I knew more about the place from which I’d come. When a guy down the hall in Farley asked if I was a redneck, I had no answer for him.
“Typically,” I wanted to say to him, “we reserve the term for country boys,” though to me (a city boy) it was not then a term of derision. Rural people worked the fields, and their necks grew reddish brown from hard labor under the searing Southern sun. I knew such folks from my father’s side of the family and from playing basketball in little country gyms throughout north Louisiana. Then again, I thought (while my new hallmate waited for my reply), most folks in south Louisiana describe most folks in north Louisiana as “redneck,” very aware that the reciprocal appellation for south Louisianians is “coon ass.” It was not until sometime later, when I related this interchange to a friend from Texas, that I was told I perhaps had been insulted. Such were the early awakenings of my developing sense of pride in my Louisiana roots.
As time has gone by, I have more and more relished the distinctive character, pathos and good spirits of my native homeland. It’s a screwy place with a roguish past and still a roguish present. It is unlike any corner of the United States. The destitution will break your heart. The joi de vivre will bring a smile in the midst of that heartache. As I’ve grown into my middle years, I realize how much of who I am derives from the sense and sensibilities of my Southernness. I learned there to take it easy. It is the foreignness of being gone from such genial, laid-back surroundings, I often think, that these days makes me anxious. I am out of my element among the serious and uptight.
It has been a long time since I’ve lived at home. In fact, I have now lived in South Bend much longer than I lived in Louisiana growing up. But it will always be home. I am fortunate that my parents, now well into their 80s, live there still. Their presence there, and my visits back, give me a home base, a home place, a hometown to come back to. Even in the midst of the city’s awful urban sprawl, there are pockets of utter familiarity and a soothing tonic for the blood. Whenever I return, going among the pine trees and azaleas, the low-country moisture, the light of a Louisiana sky, the old homes and leafy pathways, a comfort comes over me, a rightness, a sense of belonging—to whom or what I do not know for sure.
I have wondered, though, about the value of hometowns in today’s world of mobility, of moving around for professional advancement, of people in their twilight years heading to retirement communities and locales with sunny dispositions. And if a family has moved often, where do the children call home? If mobility is a virtue and staying put a sign of weakness, what do we lose without a sense of place? Do children—the grown ones I mean—ever go back to a hometown to visit when parents and siblings are gone from there? And if there is no reason any longer to return, where do people go to reconnect with the heart and soul of their beginnings?
I do not have answers for these things, but asking others to talk about their hometowns seemed like a good direction to set out in. Maybe their stories will help all of us head home.
Kerry Temple is editor of Notre Dame Magazine.