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June 18, 2009

This Wonderful Life: Welcome home, no matter where you are


It must be nice to spend your young life in a place where the physical and social landscape feels like home.

I grew up in the South, in a part of Florida that is securely under the buckle of the Bible Belt. Sure, there was all that drawling Southern charm, Spanish moss and porches in the old section of town laced with gingerbread and appointed with swings and rockers.

But if you pitted zealous obedience against openminded curiosity, obedience always emerged victorious. If you thought your opinions might run counter to the status quo, you didn’t speak too loudly in restaurants or let too many people know how you felt and thought.

Everyone was presumed Republican until proven Libertarian.

I never felt at home. This week, I was back in the South — not in my hometown, but in Richmond, Va., where my Aunt Vera lives. I haven’t been there since last year, when my grandmother suffered a double blow from a bout of shingles and then a stroke, and things looked bad. It was a most difficult trip — draining in the extreme. My grandmother survived that, only to die a couple months later.

In the South, stories often start out looking very cheery, only to take unexpectedly dark turns.

``I’ll always remember the Fourth of July picnic where Miss Marguerite brought that delicious peach pie and Clem’s oldest boy lost three fingers in a freak tug-a-war accident.’’ This trip doesn’t take a turn that dark.

Throughout my life, I have enjoyed visiting my Aunt Vera more than just about anything else.

When I was a little girl, her attic was a nirvana of dress-up possibilities. On one trip, she allowed me to wear her silver fox fur stole throughout the entire visit. My mother made me remove it at mealtimes, but I vaguely recall sleeping with the thing.

Aunt Vera was the fanciest of Aunts. I held her taste to be the pinnacle of style. She was my Martha Stewart before there was a Martha Stewart.

I planned this trip so she could spend time with Bee and meet Posey, although I feared the damage my little nudist daredevil might be able to inflict on a house that had not needed childproofing in some 30 years.

When we arrived, Vera showed the girls immediately to a set of gift bags filled with just the kinds of things that little girls adore — bubbles and a ball decorated with princesses, an over-sized princess coloring book, stickers, a little wooden stationery caddy with flowers and butterflies and an embroidered pillow that read ``Love.’’

I remembered instantly why I so enjoyed those visits. It wasn’t the fact that I got gifts — which I did — but the fact that I felt like my aunt ``got’’ me. She seemed to understand me when I didn’t feel understood in too many places.

I knew she was another person who had never felt at home in the hometown we shared.

She had made her homes in New England and Washington, DC, before retiring to Richmond. I’m not sure she feels entirely at home there, either. But if you visit her, she will do everything she can to make you feel at home there.

It’s a remarkable gift to be able to make people feel at home. It’s more than making them feel welcome and relaxed. It’s about making people feel understood and valued just as they are.

Elizabeth Trever Buchinger is about to hit the road. You can connect with her at www.moremindfulfamily. wordpress.com.