Words by Jeffrey Heine
Photos by Bob Miller
My hometown doesn’t exist anymore.
No, that’s not a metaphor. It’s a fact. The citizens of Lone Oak, Kentucky, voted to dissolve the town. While there is no longer a Lone Oak mayor or police department, much of the landscape and community have remained the same. The only noticeable differences are a few sign changes on the main drag through town. For me, the vote to dissolve my hometown has become a parable—a municipal allegory—with a lesson that most of us have to learn at some point in our lives: Everyone must rediscover home. The places change, the people change, and, inevitably, the relationships with those places and people change too. What we are left with are the remnants of home, like cigarette butts in an ashtray, and they fail to be enough of what they used to be.
At one time or another, we all have to renegotiate the terms of home. If you haven’t yet, take heart, you will. We all must wrestle with and rationalize what constitutes home. Variables like place and people seem to be necessary aspects of a home, but what happens when place itself is in flux? What happens when the field becomes a strip mall? What happens when the house you called home is sold? What happens when you make a new home, and you don’t even realize it until it’s too late?
Early in college, I was driving back to my rental house in central Kentucky after spending Thanksgiving with my family in the far western end of the commonwealth. As I pulled off the parkway for New Circle Road, I called my parents to let them know I’d made it safely through the snow.
“I just wanted to let you know I’m home.”
I pressed “end” and sat in my idling blue Volkswagen Beetle. The snow began to build on the windshield. The words “I’m home” kept repeating in my head, like the persistent ringing that follows after you leave a concert. Was this really home now? This sketchy rental house with a rotating cast of roommates, Pearl Jam posters decorating an otherwise scant kitchen, and a thermostat held together by duct tape?
I had left my childhood home five hours earlier. The house where my parents lived still held my old room like a time capsule. The walls were still painted baby boy blue. The room was like a well-curated museum.
Moving out on my own was never an endeavor to establish a new home. That had never crossed my mind. But what I found, and what startled me so deeply, was that I had unknowingly created a new one. This made me long for the past more than ever. Because I knew I was losing something I would never get back, no matter how much I wanted to get it back. Making a new home, even a cut-rate semblance of one, meant I was leaving behind the only home I’d ever known. This new place was a phony, a residential fraud.
On that cold Kentucky night, as the temperature fell as swiftly as the snow, I sat in my car contemplating the phenomenon of home, and I wondered aloud, “Can home still be called home when it doesn’t feel like home?”
As with most questions of significance asked in the dark of night, I could not find a sufficient answer. I wondered if I would ever discover an adequate response, and I worried that the most accurate response would mean only greater loss ahead.
There are stories about one’s family that you only hear after youth is behind you. You learn the real reasons behind a divorce, a death, or a long-term absence: He was really in rehab. She was actually a communist. It was not tuberculosis; he was stabbed trying to rob an underground poker game. Those are just a few revelations I came to learn only in my adult years.
Another story is the real narrative of my great-grandparents marriage. Their life, both together and apart, is one of those stories that required maturity before I could know what really happened. Once I was in college, I heard, for the first time, the tragedy of Leroy and Loudene.
Loudene was born at the turn of the 20th century in rural Southern Illinois. She was still quite young when she married a handsome, fiery coal miner from Sturgis, Kentucky, named Leroy. After years of marriage and with two young boys in the house, Leroy ran off with a woman who lived down the street. The woman also had two children, and Leroy would spend his years of fatherhood with them.
Occasionally, Leroy would come by Loudene’s house and visit his sons. He’d stay long enough to smoke a few cigarettes and give the boys the sense of having a dad in the house. Loudene’s heartbreak over Leroy was more than most people could bear. Having him in the home, a picture of a whole family, was as fulfilling as it was fleeting.
When Leroy decided his visit was over, he would put out the last cigarette and tell them all goodbye. After Leroy left, Loudene would open the cabinet under the kitchen sink and retrieve a large Mason jar. She would take the ashtray, sift out the cigarette butts from the ashes, and place them in the jar. Then she would close it up and put it away. That was how much she missed Leroy. That was how much she missed what she once called home. If cigarette butts were the only relics of home she could hold on to, she would.
Years later, like the prodigal son who suddenly remembered the way back, Leroy would try to make amends. Loudene would let him. She decided that, even after all those years and cigarettes, by having Leroy back they could make a home again. And that was enough.
Can home still be called home when it doesn’t feel like home?
Over the years, I have thought about my great-grandmother’s loss and her resolve. I admire how she navigated the pain of losing the home she had built up and believed in. It was not until I had children that I realized there was an aspect of Loudene’s story I had not yet understood. Yes, Loudene had lost the home she had built and believed in, but she never stopped building a home for her sons.
I came to understand this when my own family moved into a new house in Alabama. It was still too far from the bluegrass, but it was where my wife and I knew we should build a home for our young family. Amid the stacks of moving boxes, I plugged a speaker into the wall. I put on a song by Nick Cave that always makes me think of the home I once had in Lone Oak.
As the music played, my daughters danced across the old hardwoods, worn down over the 80 years of use. With each step, twirl, and laugh, they were building our home. They were covering our floors, walls, and ceilings with hope and joy. In this moment of transcendence, a realization rushed through me. This, finally, was the home I had been aching for all these years. It was like a balm for my soul. It was, as the songwriter David Wilcox once wrote, “the poetry that moved my heart.” I recognized then that there was more to be done, that home is not a memory but something to be cultivated, fought for, and lived in. Something that had only seemed past became not only present but future.
There is a necessary tension that arises when you look back and remember where you have been. It exists between what was and what will be. In that tension, you can acknowledge, even mourn, all that has changed and what remains. Remembering the past helps us to learn what is possible, what can be in the future. This is part of the dunamis—the propelling power—of hope. The lost sense of home does not mean it will remain elusive forever. Because remembering home is part of rediscovering home. The remembering teaches us that if there has been a place of contented rootedness before, then there can be again.
I think we are all collecting the cigarette butts from the ashes, doing our best to hold on to what we can. It’s not wrong to miss what we once had, but we shouldn’t let it take away from our ability to enjoy what is right in front of us or keep us from striving for what still can be.
That moving day, as I watched my daughters dance across the empty living room floor, I thought about how, in time, they will leave this house and enter their own season of rediscovering home. As I started to ache for them, I found a deeper, more resilient hopefulness. It was a hope that one day they too will build what we are building now. And that was enough.