On an unseasonably mild, late December Sunday afternoon, a middle aged man stands in solitude outside a tiny country church in Southern Appalachia. He isn’t by himself. His family and several other church goers are mingling and milling about in the parking lot nearby but, for a few stolen moments, he is completely alone. The service has just let out.
The man had just been sitting near the back of the little sanctuary where he had sat a hundred times before on his frequent visits to this little valley church, such a vital part of his family’s history. It was here that his father had grown up. It was here that, as a child, he had watched and listened with fascination to mountain-country church services so different from those he had been accustomed to in the north that they seemed a wholly different ritual.
Sitting there in that tiny little house of worship on this particular day, the man had spent much of the service remembering those days 30 and 40 years gone by where, as a child, he sat in congregations made up mostly of his extended family from up and down this lovely valley. On this day, many of those family members are still represented here, but not in body…they are found on little memorial labels on the inside covers of the hymnals and pew bibles. Melancholy waves washed over him as he looked at the labels, then looked around the church to find only one or two of the old-timers left, sitting there in the same pew they’d occupied for many decades. Their silver heads and wrinkled faces served now as a direct link to his childhood providing an intense mixture of comfort and a painful yearning. He had an eerie feeling that, if he could only close his eyes and open them again, just right, he may be able to look up and see the back of his grandparents’ heads sitting in their familiar places, or those of his dearly departed aunts or uncles in theirs.
Now there are strange new backs of heads in their place.
Now, outside, the man has wandered off on his own. The service has ended and he stands, soaking in the unusually warm sun, fixing his gaze down valley. About a mile away, he has found what he once considered his Valhalla. There, just beyond a steep hill, lay his grandparents’ little house and cattle farm. Nestled beautifully at the foot of the mountain that looms sentinel over the valley sits the home his grandfather had built…the home where his father had been born and raised…the home of his heart. There was a time when this place literally made him ache for it. He had spent nearly every holiday here as a child. A lion’s share of his fondest childhood memories were anchored here. There was a time when he felt this place held the magic stuff that made him tick. There was a time.
Standing here now, the man is searching for that connection to this place. He is somewhat bewildered that he isn’t feeling what he expected to feel. Truthfully, he half expected that when he came over here to drink in this view he might find himself choking back strong emotions…yet, the emotion he is feeling is of a very different kind. What he feels is a deep understanding. He understands that his connection to this place was people. The farm he loved so much that lies a mile down the road there is home to strangers now. Now that is just another familiar place. A beautiful familiar place. The people, the family, that made that place so special are gone on to a new home now.
As I stood there, outside that little church so steeped in my family history, looking down the valley towards my grandparents’ farm…my dad’s home place, I was suddenly aware that I had a new appreciation for an old adage I had heard my whole life but never truly understood. You can’t go home again. Much as my dear grandparents’ bodies were only shells that had housed their beautiful souls so, too, I now knew, that farm was just a shell which housed my beautiful memories. I can visit those memories whenever I want and they will never lose their luster, unlike that farm. It has been five years now since grandpa passed and that lovely little farm passed from our family’s control a short while after that. It was a tough thing to let go. It was a really tough thing. But, standing there outside the church that Sunday, I finally let go.
Then I went home.