everyone has their story of working a going-nowhere job that makes her throw her hands up in the air and rejoice when the clock strikes five (or four-thirty, as the case was for me). while i genuinely cared for and formed fruitful friendships with my coworkers at this job, i knew that as i stared out the window at another dreary South Dakota winter day that i couldn’t spend yet another frigid winter in that chair, that desk, that job.
so i applied to graduate schools in booming towns and in college towns to study literature. and it all led me to here.
* * *
“here” exists and breathes and feels a lot differently than i had originally wished. i expected “here” to be in Columbia, MO, in a state in which i spent five years of my childhood. i thought that “here” would have me returning to Missouri to earn my MA and then my PhD. i thought that “here” meant that i’d teach and cheer on the St. Louis Cardinals and read and learn and raise my own baby Cardinals fans in a historic home in the St. Louis suburbs. i expected “here” to mean fielding job offers from all major universities and institutions in and around St. Louis, all of whom would be clamoring to hire me, an expert in modern multicultural literature.
and yet…when i applied to Mizzou, they kindly said, “No, thanks.”
but who said yes? a local state university that i never wanted to attend in a town in which i never wanted to live.
still, i answered that call. and that has made all the difference.
* * *
in that town, which swelled in size nine months of the year when the university classes were in session, i learned how to be a wife.
in that town, i performed the “leave and cleave” mantra that i feared, yet understood was so necessary for our baby family, the duo that formed the moment that rings were exchanged and a kiss was shared on the most stiflingly hot day in July earlier that summer.
in that town, i became an educator, carefully pruned and coddled by my mentors yet simultaneously left to flutter and flounder on my own as the teacher at the front of the classroom.
it never ceased to baffle me that in that town, i became the one seated at the teacher’s desk, that i was the one standing behind the podium – the students were mine, and i was theirs. for fifty minutes, three times per week, for the length of the semester, i was their questioner, their cajoler, their boss, their bootstraps, their driver, their judge and jury.
in that town, i was relentless in my pursuit of perfection. i convinced myself that i could only succeed as an educator and as a scholar if i read every word of every reading assigned, if i annotated text after text with profound questions and conclusions, if i served my students better than i served myself.
in that town, i was rescued. i was rescued by my husband, by my therapist, by medication, by the gift of permission not to do it all, endure it all, be it all. i achieved peace, balance, security.
and so, in that town, i became a mother.
in that town, i saw my husband, bare-chested, clutching our little baby, swaddled in a blanket. i truly began to understand what it means to be married, to have a husband, a co-parent, a partner who exists to endure, in tandem, every moment, small and life-altering, that we experience together.
in that town, our lives as parents began, and only we two have been there all the while, have witnessed every crinkled-eye smile, every cry – the beautiful and overwhelming sights and sounds of parenthood.
in that town, our family of three began.
in that town, i grasped my five-month-old son to my pounding heart as the news program shared that twenty children had been slaughtered in their classrooms at school, my tears mixing with his sweet baby smell, my sobs heaving with his slumbering snores.
in that town, we clad our baby in soundproof headphones and headed to the arenas, his royal blue protective gear muffling the crowd of athletic supporters, Mama and Daddy included.
in that town, our son frequented the park, at first lying on a thin elephant-printed blanket beneath a shady mature tree, and later, swinging back and forth on the playground in the sunshine, a ballcap atop his head to shelter his fair skin.
in that town, we celebrated our boy’s first birthday. we sang and devoured cake and giggled and celebrated. and then we packed, box after box, labeling it this or that and stacking the cardboard caverns, one on top of the other, in the corner of the living room.
* * *
i returned to that town recently, alone.
it had been more than seven years since we lived in that town, yet as i drove along HWY 50 towards the city limits, my muscle memory stretched and strengthened. i knew the way.
there’s the old farmhouse, the one with the regal brick exterior and the shutters, the one i always wanted to own.
there’s the turn-off to the university, to the office where Jordan launched his IT career.
there’s our old apartment, our first baby’s first home.
there’s the hospital where we first met our boy; there’s the church where our boy was baptized.
there’s the ballfield where Jordan hit and fielded, where our son and i sat on the deep, green benches and drove cars and monster trucks in between frantically waving to Daddy on the field.
there’s the restaurants we frequented, the food that became synonymous with experiencing that town.
there’s the restaurant where i devoured brunch on the day that we discovered that i was pregnant. that brunch was one of the last meals for which i had an appetite, the final delicious intake of French toast and bacon before the morning sickness set in.
in that town, i collected again all of the memories we had scattered, like leaves twist-turning as they plummet from their branches at the advent of fall. i gathered them up, in my hands, my pockets and my heart, and i took them home.
in that town, i grew. i became.
and because of that town, i am.