Returning to One’s Roots
Returning to one’s roots can be emotionally charged, therapeutic, exhilarating, liberating, or terrifying, depending on your memories. When my sister suggested we revisit our old haunts in Elkhart, Indiana, where we spent our 1965-66 furlough year, I readily agreed. It was the last time we ever lived together. I was in Grade 6, and my sister in Grade 11. My parents and I returned there in 1970, and I stayed an extra year when they left me for my senior year of high school to return to the mission field. Both my siblings were on their own by then. Here’s an excerpt from my journal:
It’s the middle of the night and my thoughts are ricocheting so fast I can’t sleep. How does one record thoughts, emotions, impressions, and for whose benefit? Where to begin? These are MY memories. With whom do I share them? When I take a photo of our old house, my immediate thought is I want to send it to my mom [who is deceased]. Thankfully, I’m experiencing this trip with my sister, which is hugely satisfying. But I record them for myself so that in my old age I have somewhere to refresh and keep the memories alive. I don’t share these with my children because they weren’t there. But maybe someday they’ll visit some spot on earth and stand there and say, “My mother’s spirit was here.”
I stand outside our parsonage home on Second Street and “watch” my sixth-grade-self playing Jingle Jump on the sidewalk. I see me climbing the tree in the front yard and climbing out my bedroom window onto the roof. Playing with our dog Duke and ironing in front of the TV in the basement. Marimba lessons and finding marbles in the heat register in my brother’s bedroom and slip-sliding in the oversized bathtub and buying toothpaste because I saw it advertised on TV. My huge empty bedroom upstairs with my sister on the other side. I learned to use the telephone. Snapshots in my mind of packing for our summer trip across the USA. My mom was sick with Hodgkin’s that year, and we complained of Dad’s cooking. This is my story, my history. I’ve relived it in my mind many times.
The neighborhood is seedy now and multi-racial. The neighbor across the street came over to chat and told us the house is in foreclosure. I want so much to see inside, but it’s unsafe, he said.
My best friend Kathy lived at the end of Pottawatomi Street, and we walked the six blocks to school each day together, past a Mom-and-Pop grocery store where we bought wax pop bottles or wax lips filled with sweet liquid and candy cigarettes. We formed the TGTG club (The Glued Together Girls). She loved to stay overnight at our house because her daddy was raping her at hers, and I was too ignorant to know. She taught me to make snow angels and play king of the mountain. We played hundreds of games of Yahtzee, biked down to McDonald’s in the winter for a warm bite of hamburger and French fries.
More memories flooded in when we visited the old Grace Bible Church Tabernacle who had showered us furloughing missionaries with love and Tupperware. We met the current pastor who has a ministry to inner city dwellers. Then on to Central High School where I graduated with 900 other seniors—a huge culture shock to this African girl. I wonder what memories surfaced for my sister as we visited her high school and the home where she stayed for her senior year.
My former Samuel Strong School building now houses a business. So many memories. Open-stall bathrooms in the basement, being teased for being the teacher’s pet, volleyball in the low-ceilinged gym. Declining to be a crossing guard because I didn’t know what that was. Skating on ice on the pavement for the first time. Being teased for gifting dandelions to the teacher (Who knew they were weeds!) Kathy destroying a page from Playboy magazine she found on the sidewalk, and I had no clue what it was. Kathy wondering how babies got fed, and she was surprised that I knew (well, duh—I watched mothers nursing all the time in Africa, including in church) and me surprised that she didn’t know this basic fact of life.
We drove to the house where we lived in 1970, but though I saw the curtains moving, no one answered the door when I knocked. More memories sling their way across my brain. When we visited the house where I lived with an older couple in my senior year, the current owners invited me in. Too many painful memories to record from that year. But revisit them I must if I want to heal from them. Perhaps another day. . .
A 2023 Update. Physically revisiting a site may trigger emotions, but it’s worth it. I understand the power of letting go of the past, and over the years, I have revisited each of those memories and found healing and release. This summer our family is planning a trip back to Michigan where we raised our girls. New memories will soon overlay old ones as they share with their husbands and children what it was like where they grew up. Let the fun begin!