Where Are You From How I Lost My Hometown
The day after the election, the last threads of attachment I felt to home frayed and finally broke.
On November 9th, I retweeted a line from Kurt Vonnegut: “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” I thought of my friend Jessie, who, the day before Election Day, had asked me if I planned to attend our high school reunion.
Jessie, a white woman I’ve been friends with since elementary school, lives near me in the Washington, DC area, two hours north of our hometown of Ashland, Virginia—or, as our town motto calls it, “the Center of the Universe.” She is my only friend from home here in DC. She understands what it’s like to be a small-town Southern girl living in the Big Northern City; how your perceptions and values change—how you change—when you are no longer in the same place and with the same people you knew as a child. The two of us had commiserated over the high school people we had de-friended on Facebook throughout the long election, and how it would be awkward reuniting with them in person if we went to our reunion. We had both spoken out against Donald Trump online in an attempt to open the eyes of those we had thought of as friends back home and once upon a time, and had quickly lost favor among those from Patrick Henry High’s Class of 1998.
On November 7th, my answer to Jessie’s question was yes, I still wanted to attend our high school reunion. I missed my old friends and the family I hadn’t seen in awhile. I missed Ashland. I missed my home.
But I’d been watching my home fade and disappear for months, the ties tethering me to my small-town Southern girl narrative dissolving like medical sutures, stitches vanishing so that what’s underneath looks like it was never touched. The memory of my childhood home—the town, the house I grew up in, the people I knew—is a scar now, no longer tender, fading as I grow.
Even for central Virginia, Ashland is country. It sits between Richmond and Fredericksburg like a bridge in and out of time, where modernity is just starting to pass through. Near the I-95 highway exits, everything is new: Chick-Fil-A, Applebee’s, Long John Silver’s, WaWa. Jessie calls it “Ash Vegas” now that there’s a drive-thru Starbucks with a Mexican joint next door.
Once you cross US Route 1, however, the charm of historic Ashland is upon you: the tiny downtown area, the lovingly preserved train stop, the historic family-owned grocery store, and the Henry Clay Inn, named after the great Revolutionary War-era orator who was born in our county. That part of town still resembles what I knew growing up in Ashland: a real-life Mayberry. In fact, there used to be an ice cream parlor there called Mayberry’s, though it’s long gone now. My aunt and her boyfriend took me there when I was in elementary school and I ate rainbow sherbet, the primary-colored sweetness tingling on my tongue. Across from Mayberry’s was the post office. A few feet down, the historic movie theater. Outside the storefront windows, cars passed down the narrow two-lane drag of England Street, the main artery through downtown.
If you went down Ashcake Road, past Ashland proper, you would enter a small black community called Brown Grove. We were the descendants of freed slaves who settled a small enclave on the outskirts of town—close to work, yet a reasonable distance from whites. On Egypt Road, a dirt road off Ashcake, there was a small rancher of a few hundred square feet. My house.
The last time I saw the house I grew up in was probably the last time I will ever see it. At one time, this rectangular box of four rooms and a bathroom housed three generations of Colemans at once: me, my mother, my uncle, and my grandmother. Backed by what I imagined as a child to be a never-ending forest, the house seemed more a part of the wilderness surrounding it than a shelter from it. Once, while looking for clothes, a snake slithered out of my dresser drawer. A mouse bit my toe when I put on a shoe. Birds flew in and out. Outside my bedroom window, the trees were close enough for me to reach the leaves.
I left my hometown as soon as I graduated from high school, and eventually my grandmother was alone in the little house on Egypt Road. After she had a life-threatening heart attack and possible stroke in December of 2013, she was placed in a nursing home. My cousin, a drug addict, tried to live in the house, where pictures of my grandmother’s brothers and sisters still hung on the walls. Images of her grandchildren, grand-nieces and -nephews, and my uncle’s choir—a line of salt-and-pepper-haired black men pointing at the camera like Uncle Sam, all wearing blue-sequined tuxedos—were never taken down, never put away like the precious things they were, some the only images left of the people they memorialized. They remained on the walls while no one paid the bills.
There was no electricity, no heat. At some point, there was a flood; whether created by God or man, I don’t know. The damage was so bad that even a crackhead couldn’t live there. The county condemned the house, and Medicare required my mother put it up for sale to pay for my grandmother’s nursing home care. My grandmother died on April 11, 2016, the day before closing, but they sold the place anyway.
Her funeral was the following Sunday. I drove by the house on my way to meet up with the rest of my family. I slowed down to look at the place, its grass reaching the burgundy steps of the back porch, groping at the sides as if trying to get in, the wild finally taking it. I slowed, but there was no need to stop.
Months later, the day after the election, the last threads of attachment I felt to Ashland frayed and finally broke. That morning, folks from my hometown commented on Facebook posts from those of us scared and outraged by the election results: “Well the border isn’t too far away, get out if you don’t like it.” Some urged us to “get over it,” or to pray for the president-elect.
Though many fit the archetypical Trump voter profile—white, Southern, Christian, middle- and working-class—I had still expected more from them. I posted about never leaving Maryland: “I can’t trust the rest of y’all.” Some thought I was joking. I was dead serious.
I’d left Ashland and counted on it to stay the same. And it did, I can see that now. I had always appreciated its smallness because of what that said about me, where I’d come from. Moving away meant I had permission to look at this place through a cloud of smug, benevolent reminiscence. These were the same people I had always known. I’d just let my time away provide a certain glisten and shine to the memories I had of them; of the town itself. I had conveniently forgotten that Brown Grove never existed within the town limits. Forgotten that my uncle was called “boy” by his white hunting buddies well into his sixties. That my cousin walks the road hoping some white man will pay him a few dollars to mow his lawn, burn his trash, or move some junk. I’d forgotten that only the schools were desegregated. The coexistence of most blacks and whites in Ashland is one of congenial distance and deliberate separatism. We did our own thing, even in common spaces like football games or the Strawberry Fair. My black friends lived on certain streets, went to certain churches.
If my white classmates remained in such segregated spaces, only seeing black people at a distance, why had I ever thought they would see this election the same way I did? Take, for example, the only white boy I’ve ever said I love you to: A singing football player, who would spit from memory Run DMC’s “Christmas Time in Hollis” every year, he used to call me “Pookie.” At a very young age, the two of us formed one of those friendships that was its own kind of love. Not a romantic love—we never dated—but still a love I did not share with any other friend at the time, and I told him so. He said he loved me back.
He was popular with the other black kids, too. He was a good dancer. He beatboxed like every other white boy who beatboxes (he was mediocre at best), but because he was the only white boy we knew at the time who could beatbox at all, his skills impressed us. He and I spoke on the phone like girlfriends. He met my mother. I met his parents, even visited his house. He gave dap in the hallways, and I was the only black girl linking arms with him as we walked to class.
After graduation, he went to a prestigious military college in Virginia, and I went to the University of Maryland. We lost touch. There were random spottings of one another when we were home on break. And then, of course, there was Facebook. I saw that he had married, had kids, as had I. We Liked one another’s photos, wished one another a happy birthday. Our friendship went the way of most from childhood: It drifted off into memory. I don’t blame him for it, for not trying to keep in better touch. I didn’t try, either.
What hurts my heart, though, is the idea that he could have voted for Donald Trump. I don’t know who he voted for. But when I look at the man presented to me in pixelated freshness, that distrust, the same that led me to declare I was never leaving Maryland, fills me up again. His posts tell me that he is a Christian who films himself singing about God’s blessings. He loves his family. He loves the military. He loves his country. He loves his guns, his Second Amendment. I see images of his son learning how to shoot or going hunting on the first day of season, the boy’s face covered in green and brown paint to match their camo fatigues.
He is a man who voices, even sings, most of his opinions and beliefs, yet he avoids posting about politics. His only political post pertaining to the election was that Hillary’s white pantsuit reminded him of a stormtrooper’s uniform. I cannot help but view his silence as complacency, even agreement with Trump. And after seeing others from back home remain quiet about the election, then reveal that they voted for Trump, I am wary of him. Of the whole town.
But I haven’t unfriended him. I still love him too much, and there is some part of my heart that hopes to see future posts that prove my assumptions are wrong. To scroll past a New York Times or Washington Post article shared by him, or see a status update criticizing the new administration. Because at some point, I think, Well, what about me? What about what we had?
When the person or the place you once loved disappears, it’s hard not to wonder whether the feelings you had for them were ever real to begin with, or whether you made it all up in your head. It’s hard to even trust yourself.
Kurt Vonnegut also said, “A man without a home can’t be lost,” and this I disagree with. My grandmother’s death marked the end of one branch of the Coleman clan, eleven men and women all born and raised on Egypt Road, the last three siblings dying within months of one another. The last cornerstone of their lives, the house I grew up in, is just as dead as they are. With my family mostly gone, with no place to congregate or visit, and with the loss of those I loved, I am unmoored, lacking a connection to everything I once thought defined me.
The combined physical and emotional destruction of my home, a place that I thought would always be there for me, seemed confirmed on November 9th. It has left me questioning my identity, feeling lost. I already knew I was no longer that same girl who lived on Egypt Road, who went to Patrick Henry High School, who loved the beatboxing white boy. I hadn’t been her for some time. But I didn’t want everything that once meant so much to her to simply vanish.
The loss of my grandmother, the loss of our house, and the divisiveness of the election all combined to ensure there was nothing I could do to avoid it. I cannot find that old joy in my hometown: the joy of rainbow sherbet, of reaching from my bedroom window to grab leaves hot from the sun, of living in “the Center of the Universe” and knowing I belonged. This past Thanksgiving, despite feeling anxious, I decided that my husband, kids, and I would indeed leave Maryland and drive down to Mechanicsville, Virginia to be with family. We passed the Ashland exit on our way down I-95 South. I saw the familiar sign for my home—the one I will always know like the feel of rocks underneath my bare feet—but we kept on going. There was no need to stop.