Going home

 

I have no desire to leave this place.

I was reminded by an old friend today of a map my daughter had drawn for her last winter. There were dots all over the paper representing destinations like the North Pole, grocery store and relatives’ homes. One – the landing spot – was “home,” Kalista told her.

My friend told me she was reluctant to discard the map, fearing – more than a year later – she might not find her way home as Kalista had warned. Oh, how I can relate.

It started in Portville, N.Y., where I was raised. One year into my pursuit of a college degree, I left the place with the restless feet not uncommon among 19-year-olds who’ve lived in the same place since birth. The plan was to finish college somewhere far away and return, if desired, with a diploma.

I likely would have returned – to the Western New York area, at least – upon graduation had Kalista not been born in 2005. Coastal North Carolina was the “exotic” location I’d chosen for school, and coastal North Carolina was a place I’d grown tired of rather quickly.

But Kalista – living a not-so-ideal life with her mother a few hours up the Carolina coast from my alma mater – needed me. Almost by default, I took the first job I was offered at a newspaper in New Bern, N.C., which positioned me directly between her mother’s several “residences” in Havelock and Jacksonville. It was the only paper at which I’d applied to work.

Our time together increased over the next six months or so, going from every weekend to every weekend plus some week nights. I had a one-bedroom apartment in the quaint little historic town – North Carolina’s colonial capital, actually – we’d explore via bicycle every chance we got. She loved our Saturday morning ritual: riding to the farmer’s market for hippie-grown goodness before stopping off at the riverfront park to feed the ducks whatever stale bread I’d saved from my lunches during the week.

Then came the legal-laden process of getting full custody of Kalista. While this exposed an awful aspect of parenthood (one that, at times, distracted me from actually being a parent), the year-long ordeal made me understand exactly how important it was that I do anything necessary to keep my daughter with me.

That included agreeing to a deal that gave her mother bi-weekly supervised visits … which kept me within driving distance of the coast, which kept me in the Carolinas. In 2008, my career took us to Kinston, N.C.

Kinston was a place I adored from the start because, from the start, it was wildly apparent I was not living or working in a tourist town. New Bern and Wilmington – where I’d gone to college – were tourist attractions … rather blatantly. Kinston had no waterfront condos. That was in part because its only waterfront was a stretch of the Neuse River that reminded me of the desolate, eerily moving Allegany River of my childhood, and partly because it was a town where people worked real jobs for real livings.

(Here’s a blank space for rebuttal.)

Kalista and I moved into a two-bedroom cottage with seven-foot ceilings and a great view of the woods from across the two-lane county road it sat on, named after Elijah Loftin (whoever that was). I left work at the daily newspaper by 5:50 p.m. each day so I could pick her up from daycare – a facility owned by the daughter-in-law of our landlord – by 6 p.m. And each day, I’d put the car in park at the bottom of our driveway, unload her from her car seat and lead her by the hand across Elijah Loftin Road to get the mail from the box in front of the woods. Kalista would sit on my lap once we got back into the car, and I’d let her “steer” (my hand was always at the bottom of the wheel) as we drove up the driveway and around to the side of our house.

Telling me she wanted to be just like me, she’d lean and stretch to rest her left elbow on the car window edge as we did this.

We lived in Kinston for one season of Kinston Indians baseball. The Indians were a minor league team that had a stadium downtown. Sometimes, I got free tickets through the paper. On nights I didn’t have a ticket, the usher would let us in anyway because we attended the same Lutheran church on Vernon Avenue.

At first, Kalista came to the games armed with dolls to play with and on a constant search for cotton candy. By the end of our days in Kinston, though, she’d become as big a fan of the Indians as any 3-year-old could be, staying awake most nights until the seventh inning or so. To this day, she remembers the catchy song that’d ring throughout Grainger Stadium whenever first baseman Ole Sheldon stepped to the plate and, to this day, I haven’t forgotten her scrambling around the bases on her fourth birthday.

The Indians announced in December 2010 – a bit more than a year after we left Kinston – the team had been sold and is moving to Zebulon, N.C.

I’m not necessarily a baseball fan; what made these games fun was the comradely. There were numerous folks in this rural city who made these games – and our lives – completely memorable, starting with my coworkers at the paper. We’d do our best to sit together, whether it was Kalista and me with a fellow reporter and his girlfriend, my editor with his girlfriend or the publisher and his wife. If this seating arrangement didn’t come to fruition, there were no worries … there always seemed to be someone who knew us sitting nearby.

I believed for a time Kinston would be the city we always called home.

Suddenly, abruptly and rather forcefully came Greenwood, S.C., in September 2009. One Saturday at work in Kinston, I’d driven my car through a steady red light and been struck – where Kalista would have been seated, had she not been spending the weekend with my parents – by a truck. I was okay, but I left the scene that day realizing my distracted mind was weighted heavy with the toils of raising a child alone without family nearby, and decided it was time to act on my desire to be near my parents for help.

And due to my father’s job, they had relocated to Greenwood – not Kinston – when they pulled the infamous Yankee move south.

Nowadays, things are good, minus Kalista’s mom no longer wanting much to do with those bi-weekly visits. It took a while for Greenwood to live up to Kinston’s benchmark, but I’d say it’s there. The people are different – not as “progressive” as the folks in N.C. and huge supporters of the commitment to loyalty the rest of the country dropped 30 years ago – but people nonetheless. There’s no baseball here, but at least everyone likes to go out to eat. And shop at Walmart.

Essentially, what I’ve learned and come to accept in Greenwood is I’ll never be a man of prestige, but I can be a man who’s a very good father, which I learned from Kinston is all that matters.

I’ve also learned – perhaps most importantly – in Greenwood it’s not the quantity of people you surround yourself with, but the quality. For instance, I have approximately 1/40th the number of friends in Greenwood I had in Kinston, but that 1/40th has been outstanding. These are the people I’d prefer Kalista be around.

It is home here. Know how I know? Tonight I stood in front of our home – an old mill house I bought one year ago – and admired the freshly-cut lawn, recently-pruned rose bushes and week-old African daisies until it occurred to me this is a place Kalista loves. All along, I’d done things I thought would make me a better parent, but not one time did I consider how much Kalista liked New Bern or Kinston or Jacksonville or Havelock or Wilmington.

“You know what?” I thought to myself. “She’s pretty happy here.

“She loves her room and her swing set and walks up the road to Grandma and Poppa’s house. I bet she’s tired of moving.”

Truth is, I am too.

And I realized, after hearing about the map Kalista made my friend, my daughter’s made me a guide to home as well … except mine’s been in the works since the day she was born.

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