Walking through the kitchen, I swipe a section of the newspaper and head out the back door. On my patio deck, I pour a liberal amount of charcoal into the chimney starter, place the now crumpled newspaper pages inside, and then strike a match to set the paper ablaze. I take a moment to ensure that I have done my part to totally immolate the newspaper. Not once do I wonder what important stories I may be destroying. In Sainte Genevieve, the important stories are lived, not written.
Billed as “the Oldest Town West of the
”, Sainte Genevieve (pop. 4572) can often feel like it. The town exists somewhere in time between the long ago and yesterday. Civic leaders have come and gone, but no viable path to the present has yet to be found. While the President of the Mississippi may be discussing how to ‘Win the Future’, we have no time for that. Here, the battles of the past are still being waged. United States
For a small child, my hometown can be a veritable wonderland, where every house contains either a relative or a good friend. But as that child progresses toward adulthood, this town, founded in 1735 (and living off that fact), can seem a prison. As my friends and I approached graduation in spring 1990, we could barely contain our desire to break free. Where were we going? It didn’t matter as long as it was away from here. Twenty-one years later my oldest child now sits on that cusp of freedom. As interested in money as all teens are, I don’t believe she would see $50,000 as payment enough to stay here a day longer than necessary. Even now, I don’t blame her; I wish her Godspeed in finding where she belongs.
When I made my escape, I left without looking back. I went to college, worked and made a life for myself. With the exception of family, my old town continued to recede in my mind. Among my new friends, when the topic of my birthplace arose, the mocking term Puckeyhuddle came to be used.
Living and working in
agreed with me. I attended a church of thousands and played bass guitar in the church band, as well as playing in a rock band with a nationally known radio personality. My job was ok, if not great, but for the most part, city living agreed with me. I envisioned having an apartment overlooking St. Louis , taking the Metro link to work, dining at the best places and become one of the usual suspects in the Forest Park Central West End. My only thought of Puckeyhuddle was as the punch line of a joke.
Despite being one of the few in possession of a cell-phone at the time, voicemail was still not in vogue. The answering machine in my apartment became my only real contact with Puckeyhuddle. My mother would leave messages requesting to know how I was and then I would in turn change my outgoing message so that the next time she called, my machine would respond to her. In other words, I had become a real jerk; somehow that fact had escaped me up to this point.
One day, I checked my messages and there was one, as usual, from old Puckeyhuddle. But it wasn’t my parents. It was my aunt informing me that something had happened concerning my parents. I packed a bag and headed out the door, soon steering my car southward.
Without going into the details, the resolution of this portion of the story ended with a result I never could have imagined when I drove home that night. I chose to make an abrupt change and move back home temporarily until the issues were resolved. The year was 1998 and I had been away from home for eight years.
To understand the amount of change that had taken place during those years while I was gone, one need only attempt to watch paint dry, take a five minute break, then resume the watch. Surely some progress has been made, but good luck identifying it.
In need of work for what I assumed would be a somewhat short amount of time, I took some temporary office work in a few of the nearby larger cities. As I worked these jobs, two things became apparent. Temp work pays terrible and my stay would not be as short as I had hoped. So I set myself to the task of finding a job that would only involve my mind while on the job, but would not follow me home on my personal time. Thirteen years ago, I found that job, which is the job I currently have.
I sought what I hoped would be a mindless job for one reason. I thought that while I was stuck in Puckeyhuddle, I may be able to put my mind to the task of writing. I don’t know that I ever felt writing to be my calling, but since NASA had no need of a colorblind pilot, I was in search of a new calling.
Here I am now, thirteen years later actually writing. What happened during those years? All I can say is that life happened - thirteen wonderful years of life. As a writer, I’ll call it background. What I thought I knew then, has been cast aside as life and God have taught me so much more. Thirteen years ago, I made what may have been my first self-less choice, only to find that it has made all the difference for me.
A year after being home, the love of my life re-entered it; and she came bearing gifts. It wasn’t long before the beautiful Dawn and her two equally beautiful daughters became my family and my life. Our son came a year later to complete our family of five. Nothing matters more to me than the lives of these people. But what I soon found, was that I was not alone.
The friends of my childhood, like myself, had taken off like the rockets that we were upon high school graduation, set for places unknown. But as I found comfort in the life I was building in Puckeyhuddle, many of my friends were on a similar path. With families of our own, we soon watched as our children took our places as childhood friends. They attended our school, sometimes even taught by our teachers. We now coach their sports teams, just as our parents did for us.
Our parents never left. After graduation, they took up their lifelong positions at the local factories and offices, never thinking of anything else. That was what was done in their day. Our day was different as I have explained. Perhaps it was the continued presence of new media exposing us to what the world had to offer. Maybe the shadow of the Vietnam War made their desires simpler and closer to home. The truth is, I don’t know.
What I do know, is that even as we take their place in the chain of life, how we view it is different. Because we have been gone, we can embrace our Puckeyhuddle in a way that they can’t. Jesus recounts the parable of a man whose long lost son returns and the joy his return brings. The son who had never left didn’t understand why the father seemed to favor the other son over him. After all, he had never left and always been here for his father. The father explained that the other son had been dead but is now alive; lost but now found. A different appreciation for an object of desire is present when one can understand the feeling that occurs in its absence.
Recently, my friends and I celebrated our 20th high school reunion. In a small town, the availability to choose your friends is limited. Even as you age, the choices don’t change. Unlike a big city, the same classmates will follow you through elementary, middle and high schools. The friends I graduated with were the only friends I had ever known. Finding a bit of misty-eyed nostalgia would, of course, be expected. But what I found surprised me – I still loved my friends.
It was no surprise we parted ways in the manner we did. We all had places to go. I knew my fond memories of them were real enough, but I always assumed it was our shared experiences that endeared them to me. But in the months leading toward the big night, as we sought to reconnect over the social network, we performed the usual reunion tasks ahead of schedule. The “Where do you live? Work?”, “Do you have a family?”, “Hey here’s a picture of my kids” was casually played out on Facebook and out of the way prior to our party.
Rather than recount our life story, as if on an interminable job interview, our reunion simply became a time for a great group of friends to reconnect the spirit and spark that made us friends in the first place. The friendships that were rekindled that night became life changing. High school sweethearts, George and Melinda have found each other again. Tiffanie moved back from
, to be closer to family, but I would wager we have something to do with that also. When Kim and Jeremy lost their son a few months later, a small reunion of friends sought to comfort them. More connections than I can name have been renewed. The joy of our friendship is such that we have now made it a point to get together regularly. Colorado
Does a person love their family because they must or is there a genuine affection? Is our friendship a product of our common experience or is it due to a specific attraction? I can’t really answer those questions anymore than I can tell you whether my affection for my little Puckeyhuddle is genuine or simply the result of this being my home. I could list the reasons why I’m still here – school, church, family – and none of them would be wrong. But I don’t know that any of them would be right, either.
All I can really say is that my world is a better place here in Puckeyhuddle. I see David running for a position on our school board and I realize we are not kids anymore, even if we act like it when we’re together. As I prepare for my daughter to leave the nest, I acknowledge that while I'm not my father, I am his newer, younger replacement. And so I must do my best to keep the world spinning until my now eight year old son, is ready to take my place.
In Voltaire's Candide, the optimistic Professor Pangloss teaches that this world is the best of all the possible worlds. Perhaps the mockery and derision found in Voltaire's story is justified in this world full of suffering. But in my small world, as I stand on my deck, with the aroma of the pork-steaks on the grill and the sounds of my family through the screen door, I cannot imagine a better possible world than the one where I find myself today.