My hometown is the kind of place where people easily get stuck. Different people get stuck for different reasons, some good and some bad, but the slow pace generally has the effect of making people think they have all the time in the world. This story is about a good kind of stuck, one that involves building a life with a family. The first part of it is common, the second part not.
Temple, Texas is walking on a highwire balancing between town and city. It has as an arts community with the occasional cultural festival. It has four Starbucks locations, boasts one of the top hospitals in the country, and has a monstrous high school football stadium–the kind with a megatron you can see from the highway. But under this city-facade, Temple hasn’t yet shaken its small town attitude. It is still a one-highschool town where everyone is somehow connected. Everywhere you go, you run into a former teacher, a lady from church who you have apparently known since you were “this high”, and your friend’s mom who gossips to no end in the deli meat aisle at the grocery store. Young families are drawn in by this small-town ease, and before they know it, they have been in Temple for generations.
There was nothing wrong with our life there. It was a good place to grow up. There are well-kept parks and swimming pools, Sonic stays open a little past 10pm, and driving to a friend’s house never takes more than 15 minutes. I lived in a beautiful home, went to a fairly good school, and made lifelong friendships.
My mom was raised in Temple, and so was her mom. I don’t think she ever wanted to stay as long as she did, but I didn’t understand that until I was ready to leave. Nineteen years, and I was done. But my mom grew up in that town, and then she stayed to watch all three of her kids do the same. And then I didn’t understand why she had stayed until she was finally leaving.
Even more astonishing is that my dad had wanted to stay. He never lived anywhere for more than two years before college. His dad’s job with the State Department took them all over Asia—Indonesia, Korea, Thailand—, but he settled in Temple with my mom to raise their children. After my brothers left for school and it was just me at home, my dad would bring up the idea of moving somewhere. Sometimes it was California or Colorado, sometimes it was Germany. I think he meant it, but he would dismiss the idea when he saw how nervous I was to make friends all over again. Never mind that he had to do it every other year when he was growing up. But for all the times he acted restless, he stayed because he wanted me and my brothers to have something he never had — a hometown.
My dad always reflects on a day in Temple when he called my brother Garrett home for family dinner. When Garrett walked in the door, four of Sean’s friends sat around the dinner table while my dad finished cooking. Garrett commented that he thought we were having family dinner. “This is the family!” one of the neighbor boys shouted. Those neighbors were so comfortable in our house, and never in his life had my dad put down roots that deep. My parents stayed to give us that, and after over 25 years, Temple became my dad’s hometown too.
For all these reasons, I am proud to call Temple my hometown. But it was time. I was leaving, and they they had to leave too. They were tired of seeing the same thing every day; their bodies tired of walking the same paths–or rather driving the same path from work to home everyday. It was time for them to unstick their shoes and get going. So after I left for college, my parents moved to Manhattan.
During my first college summer, we began to pack up and sell the house. For me, that was the hardest part. Leaving the house. Or maybe it was was getting the house ready for someone else to call it home. I watched the obnoxious green walls of my bedroom be painted over with white and the scratches from my cat who had lived for 19 years be buffed out of the doorframe. We paid people to make the house generic through obliterating my memories from its surfaces. Not only did it mean I wouldn’t come back, it meant that it wouldn’t be the same house even if I could.
I still drive by. Last time I was there a neighbor drove up and saw my VW Beetle turning around in the cul-de-sac. Rolling down her window, laughing, she shouted, “just driving by?” I told her I was going to my best friend’s house across the street, hoping she would believe I hadn’t been staring at my blue-shuttered childhood home, the door still painted that resolute red my mom picked out. It looks the same, which is unsettling.
I remember clearly the day I walked out and drove away for the last time. It was July 4th, 2015. I didn’t want to let go of the handle as I closed the door. I stretched my arms out, my mom laughing as I hugged the house goodbye. I didn’t cry until she did. We both realized I wasn’t just leaving a house, I was leaving the last place that would be our home together. It was like donating the book of my time with my parents to let someone else read it, knowing they wouldn’t connect with it the same way I did. I would rather just keep it, but I knew I wouldn’t have time to read it again.
My parents now live in a two-bedroom apartment on the 9th floor of a building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. From their balcony you can see glimmers of the Hudson just past the other apartment buildings. Every little facet of life is different there. My parents don’t have a car. They don’t load up on groceries every other week like we did back home. When they need eggs or apples, they walk to the little grocery shop across the street. And if that shop doesn’t have eggs that day, they walk a couple blocks to the next one or wait until tomorrow.
My dad is working part time, learning Spanish, and taking guitar lessons. My mom spends her time meeting up with friends, reading books she never had time to read, and visiting every museum in the city. She was taking Spanish too, but she dropped out and has a little more time to watch Netflix now. They are constantly meeting new people and learning new things. They have grown in both knowledge and compassion. Like mine, their worldview is changing to see and understand people who are different from them. It’s as if we are all in college.
Many small-town Texans think that New York is too harsh a city to do more than visit. Their misconception is that New Yorkers are too cold to connect with. But that is not what my parents have found these last two years. If anything, my mom says, New Yorkers have a more community-oriented perspective than many Texans. In Texas, she explains, you get in your car alone, drive to your job, do your work, and drive back to your house at the end of the day. In New York, you get on the subway, where thousands of people from all over the world are made equal. You get off the subway and walk a few blocks by storefronts, pick up some groceries on your way home, and step on the apartment elevator with your neighbor. Even if you don’t speak to anyone, it is impossible to isolate yourself from the world around you.
People often ask me what it’s like to go home to New York. I have to explain that Austin is really my home now. Most other college students feel they are just here for now. Home is where they grew up and where their parents are, and they will have a new home wherever they get a job. When I go to Temple, I am visiting my grandparents, and when I go to New York, I am visiting my parents. Neither one is home.
Home is not where you grew up or where your parents are, and it is not where you know you will be for the next ten years. In one year, I may not be in Austin anymore and my parents may not be in New York. But we are learning that home is not where you have spent your life, it is where you are experiencing life. It is where you learn who you are and how to connect with the people around you. And though it doesn’t have all the trimmings of a family in a red brick house, it is more than enough to make a home.