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Monday, February 22, 2010
RICH JONES VIEWS OUR KIRKWOOD PAST
I’m a sucker for nostalgia. In those quiet moments of reflection, which formerly occurred in front of a fireplace, now more often in front of a Dell CRT, my thoughts often drift from the here-and-now to the there-and-then.
I am one of the many from the Centennial Class of ’65 who lives miles and decades away from Kirkwood. We who are separated by distance and years experience from our home town differently from those of you who, when you need to touch your past, drive by Lyons Field, drop in to chat with that beloved biology teacher who retired 20 years ago but still lives out in the county, or drop in to the annual holiday bash. For us, Kirkwood is more a state of mind than a place.
I am no longer tied to Kirkwood by family or residence. My father’s ashes lie under a majestic pine grove in one of the most beautiful parks in Southwest England near where my parents chose to retire in 1980. My widowed mother returned to the US and sits happy but oblivious to the past in an assisted care facility overlooking Los Angeles Harbor, without a shred of memory of her childhood in Webster Groves, her adult life in Kirkwood, or her two decades of bliss in England. I myself have visited more foreign countries than I have states, and spent more than a quarter of my life since Kirkwood living abroad. Yet wherever I’ve traveled, wherever I’ve lived, wherever I have considered my home of the moment, Kirkwood has never been far from my mind. Whenever I read one of Leslie’s newsy accounts of our class news, I ask, What is it about those special years that still links us, whether near and far, together? Why do we cling to memories of that place, and to that time, where we emerged from childhood into some semblance of adulthood?
A writer at The New Yorker who left his own Midwest hometown forty years ago answered that question a few months ago.* For those of you closer to “home,” perhaps you will see in his account of a return home that Kirkwood is in many ways, more present in us than you might imagine, though we “exiles” may no longer reside there physically.
Recently I saw in a newspaper from Hudson, my hometown, that they were about to tear down the town’s water tower. In principle, I don’t care anymore how things I used to love about Hudson change or disappear. Each time a big change happens, though, I feel a moment of resistance before my lack of caring returns….
I lived in Hudson from when I was six until I was eighteen. Sometimes I try to describe, usually without success, what it was like to grow up in a small Midwestern town forty years ago. As I get into the details, corniness tinges my voice, and a proprietary sentimentality that puts people off. I say the names of my friends back then—Kent, Jimmy, Susie, Bitsy, Cathy, Charlie, Tim, Paul—they sound somehow wrong. They’re like the names of characters in nostalgic mid-American movies or Bruce Springsteen songs, and I start to think of us as that myself, and a blurring sometimes sets in, and the whole business defeats me. But then a friend from Hudson calls, or I run into somebody from there, or I hear a rattle of shopping-cart wheels in a supermarket parking lot, and for a second I remember how growing up in Hudson could be completely, even unfairly, sweet.
Most modern people don’t belong anyplace as intimately as we belonged to Hudson. Now the town has grown and merged into a Midwest exurbia, so it’s hardly recognizable for what it was. Some of the old sense of belonging, though, remains.…
Why did Hudson enchant me? Why was life, there and then, so sweet? I think a million reasons happened to come together, none of which we grasped at the time. We had plenty of leisure. We had cars to drive. Gasoline was still so cheap it was practically free. Our parents, to whom the cars we drove belonged, had leisure too. In their case, they were inclined to take long vacations, and indulge us kids. Fathers (and a few mothers) had steady jobs, pensions, health insurance. The economic difficulties that would later take a lot of those away…had not yet visibly begun. Vietnam was in the future. Life was good.… Hudson was the place where I was spun and spun throughout my childhood in order to have maximum velocity when it finally let me go.
To all you Pioneers still near “home,” thanks. Your presence keeps the flame alive.--Rich Jones
* Ian Fraser “How the Midwest Made Me", The New Yorker, January 10th 2005. Edited excerpts from that article follow, without permission from the author or anyone else. (So don’t tell anyone I did this!)