As published in The Star-Tribune's Thanksgiving 2010 issue.
One of my earliest memories happened when I was almost 3 years old.
I was standing in the backyard of the house my parents were having built. At the time, we were living in Chatham but moving to a small farm in Spring Garden next to my grandparents’ farm. As I stood there with my sister, Tonja, I remember thinking the construction project looked like a swimming pool.
That foundation being poured would serve as more than an anchor for the two-story brick house on top of it. It would also be a foundation for my life. OnlyI would have no way of knowing how important that would still be to me 35 years later.
I graduated from Chatham High School in 1991 and then James Madison University in Harrisonburg in 1995. I moved to Petersburg for my first full-time newspaper job. I never lived in Pittsylvania County again. I got married in 1995 and have since lived in nine cities across three states in just 15 years. The distance I’ve traveled from home may be meager when compared to others, but absence is just that – absence. I’ve had to learn to live well in unfamiliar surroundings, without the comforts of family.
We visit regularly, at least a few times a year.
During one of those recent visits, I was struck by a gift that I realized my parents have given me. A gift they don’t even know they gave.
My parents still live in that house I watched being built. When I’m there, I sleep in my childhood bedroom. The same noises that kept me awake and spooked as a kid are the ones that lull me to sleep now. I eat breakfast at the same kitchen counter and crowd into the same dining room for Sunday dinners.
In an adult life filled with moving vans and change-of-address forms, their home has been my constant. When I’m in Pittsylvania County, I feel the most like me. The row of brick houses just south of Gretna on Route 29 is a personal landmark. Whenever I see those houses, I know I’m close to home. Whenever my radio dial lands on 103.3 and the sounds of WAKG fill my car, I know I’m close to home.
It just fits – like I’ve slipped into my favorite white robe and my $9.99 gray slippers from CVS.
I grew up at a time when Tightsqueeze was a mere store on a corner. When Leggett in Chatham was where I got most of my clothes, when they weren’t handed down by my sister or cousins. I remember the grand opening of Piedmont Mall and being one of the first through a set of doors at JCPenney. When Subway in Tightsqueeze was Pizza Palace, which gave me my first job. When Blairs didn’t need stoplights.
The roots. The stability. The familiar. All of these are gifts my parents have given me just by simply living in the same house, in the same community, as my childhood. This precious gift is a gift I’m not even giving my own children.
There are times when I feel very guilty about that. But whenever I hear my kids, Abby, 12, and Dalton, 9, talk about visiting their grandparents, they express the same excitement I have. They write stories for school assignments about their trips to Virginia.
They have great adventures exploring the same farm I grew up on, only I did it with my brother, Dave, and on two feet or two wheels powered by my feet. My kids and their cousins, Hannah and Peyton,explore on the comfort of a golf cart. They hand feed apples to cows in the same pastures and fish in the same ponds. Their memories are much like mine, only 30 years apart.
So when I’m feeling guilty, I think about how my parents’ home is not just my home, but it has also become the only constant home of my children. In 2007, my husband, Drew, our kids and I moved to New Jersey from south Florida.
The past three and a half years are the longest we’ve lived in one place as a family, and we’ve been able to come home to Pittsylvania County more often. The drive south is easier and faster than the one we used to have from Miami. Though, eight hours is still no weekend trip. But that’s the good part. It means we get to stay longer.
New Jersey is more beautiful than you would expect. The people are a bit friendly, though just a bit. And everyone I meet seems to miraculously have the same question for me, “Where are you from?” I don’t feel my southern accent is as strong now as it once was, but those here disagree. They usually guess I’m from Texas, Alabama or Georgia. I just smile. I know exactly where I’m from. It’s Pittsylvania County.
Thanks, Mom and Dad.
Nicole Motley van Esselstyn got her first newspaper gig as an intern with The Star-Tribune in summer 1993. She has worked for the Danville Register & Bee, The Progress-Index in Petersburg, The Miami Herald, and The Star-Ledger magazines Garden Plate and Inside New Jersey.