Friday, January 16, 2009

You can go home again

I was born in a small town.

Really, I was. I was born in Rensselaer, Ind., a town of about 5,000, as far as I recall. It is in northwestern Indiana, maybe 90 minutes from Chicago. When I lived there we made periodic trips to visit my grandmother in Chicago, but it's hard to recall how long those trips were.

The town is a few miles off the interstate, is the county seat of Jasper County and is surrounded primarily by farmland. I don't recall how close we were to another significant town, but our town was an island unto itself.

I left Indiana nearly 30 years ago, after my parents divorced. My parents' story is a rather bizarre tale, one I probably won't tell here, no matter how anonymous my blog is. When the divorce was final, mom decided she had no reason to stick around Indiana, all her family was back in Minnesota, where she grew up. While I still claim my Hoosier heritage occasionally, as a practical matter my life started over in Minnesota, and I have little connection to my years in Indiana.

But spending the earliest years of my life in Indiana left many lasting memories, whether I want them or not. I revisited the old hometown a year or so after moving. While spending part of the summer with my dad, he took us back to Indiana for about three days, providing an opportunity to visit several people from my recent past.

I made a couple of passes through town a decade or more later. In the spring of 1993 I drove through town during a return trip from Florida. It was early on a Sunday morning and still kind of dark, but it was a chance to make a quick pass through town. A few years later I made another pass through on a Saturday afternoon. I was on my way a bit further south to attend the wedding of my next-door neighbor from Rensselaer, and had time to spare. I don't remember much about what I saw during either of those passes, they were relatively brief glimpses into a world that I rarely think about.

I've lost touch with just about everyone from the early chapters of my life. Nobody has tracked me down via social networking, at least not as of yet, and I haven't gone looking for anyone, either. I still keep in touch, barely, with Jodi, my former nextdoor neighbor who now lives in Lafayette, but she's the only person I'm still in touch with.

For mom, Rensselaer was where she spent most of the 1970s, but it's not where she grew up, and she's about three decades removed from life there. Yet she's in touch with several people from her days in Rensselaer, and decided that as part of this year's trip to Gulf Shores she wanted to make a cameo in Rensselaer. She has remained in touch with a former co-worker, a widow, who invited us to stay overnight at her house on Thursday night, which we did.

Due to some miscommunication, however, Louise wasn't home when we arrived in town on Thursday night, so mom called her friend Barb, who was once my babysitter. Barb had been married, had kids, divorced, moved back east, got married again, had another kid, went back to school and, shockingly, returned to Rensselaer after more than three decades. I don't know the details of Barb's story, but I think her first ex-husband has remained in Rensselaer, and therefore Barb's kids have had some connection to the city their entire life. It's cheaper to live in Rensselaer than it is to live out east, undoubtedly, and if you like small town life, Rensselaer fits the bill. For whatever reason Barb found her way back to Rensselaer, and mom learned of this through the connections she has maintained in said city.

Like most small towns, Rensselaer has its share of amenities and familiarities. When I was a kid, it was a big deal to get a McDonald's three miles east of town, at the northerly exit of the interstate. There was already a Kentucky Fried Chicken out there, and I think Dairy Queen was built a couple of years before Mickey D's. Nowadays you can't go five miles without running into the Golden Arches, but back then, it was a big deal to get a McDonald's at our exit.

The old McDonald's is still there, but there's one in town as well, relatively close to the small, private Catholic college that put Rensselaer on the map more than a century ago.

The grocery store, pharmacy and big box retailer of my youth have all been replaced by similar businesses. I swear the old, classic downtown movie theater I went to a few times in my youth was out of business during the 1990s, but last week it was alive and well. I think a small multiplex theater opened somewhere, yet the small downtown theater is still making a go of it.

The downtown district has a large courthouse within it, and I was sure it wouldn't be as massive as I remembered it, but that's where I was wrong. As a kid the distance from point A to B seemed longer than it does now, and things seem smaller to me, for the most part, yet the courthouse is still an impressive structure.

I could easily spend hours driving around that town, jogging my memory and reminiscing, but on Friday morning mom and I spent about 10 minutes driving around before we departed. I saw a number of memorable things, and of course we had to drive past the old house on Jefferson street, a house that I'm sure I'd be stunned by how small it really is inside. I remember the basic layout to this day, and if you offered me a chance to walk through it, I wouldn't pass it up.

I knew we were staying overnight in Rensselaer, but I had no interest in trying to track down anybody from my past. Those I do remember, besides my neighbor, are likely elsewhere. But I'm sure a couple of people still live in town to this day.

I don't miss Rensselaer, and I wouldn't want to move back there, but maybe some day I'll get a chance to spend more than 15 minutes driving around town. Maybe I'll be able to walk the streets again and revisit a lot of memories I probably don't even know I have. And if I do, I'll certainly ponder how my life might be different had my parents never divorced. Perhaps I'd still be living in Rensselaer today.

Somehow I doubt it.

No comments: