I lived in Raleigh proper for eight years, worked in the city longer than that, and lived in the county that contains it for two decades. I’ve been gone six years. Although this week’s visit was my third, I was nearly completely lost. I guess you really can’t go home.
After making multiple wrong choices on the maze of interstate interchanges coming into the city, the next morning I can’t make it from my friend’s house where I’m staying to my favorite café where I wrote my first blog every week—two blocks from where I worked for eleven years—where I’m meeting friends for breakfast. The street names are familiar, but the map in my head of how they connect is completely gone. I drive in circles with no idea where I am or how to get where I want to be until I happen to come to the street the restaurant is on, the name of which I had forgotten. The remainder of my time in Raleigh, I depend on Siri.
It doesn’t help that there are new traffic circles (the first ones went in shortly before I moved and have now multiplied like rabbits); many new buildings; new businesses in old buildings; and torn down buildings.
My favorite blueberry crunch bagel at Café Carolina is now mysteriously too sweet. I’m reminded of my mother grumbling that foods aren’t as good as they used to be, declarations I rolled my eyes at in their predictability. The café and that bagel are among the very few things I have missed since I’ve been gone. I don’t have to miss them anymore. The Panera Bread and its cinnamon crunch bagel, where I write many a blog post now, have become home to me.
After breakfast I wander into the number one place I’ve longed for the past six years: a sweet boutique grocery store called The Fresh Market. I note the new signage as I approach it. I’m lost from the moment I walk in the door as the picture I’ve carried with me evaporates. It’s been completely reorganized; nothing at all is familiar. I wander for the three minutes it takes to quickly walk the circumference and I’m out the door. I don’t have to miss that any more. Of course the FM scone I loved has been long gone, the reason I settled for the blueberry crunch bagel in the first place.
I mention to my friend that though the Nissan dealership washes my new car for free, I’ve missed the car wash where I used to get my Honda CRV washed, hand-dried, wiped down inside, and vacuumed for $10. She tells me it went out of business. Don’t have to miss that anymore.
Before I head to the airport on the last day of my visit, I drive to the last two beloved places: my dear house and the historic cemetery where I watched many a sunrise before I went to work.
My neighborhood is barely recognizable. More houses have been renovated, some torn down and replaced. New neighborhoods surround the old one. My house looks mostly the same, other than yard improvements I saw several years ago. My prized banana tree—that the new owners moved—is a thriving grove. The front door is still Global Purple, and that makes me happy. The lawn is still weeds. Then, as I drive on by, I realize they have removed the fence with the purple window pane door my son Nicholas built for me. It was my pride and joy, and that makes me sad It’s not mine any more.
I expect property values have gone up and I wonder for a micro-second if I should have hung on to 609 Edmund. The wondering doesn’t last long, though once home I check the city deeds records online and confirm my suspicion.
The last stop is the Oakwood Cemetery. Old friends there are right where I left them. There are some shiny new stones scattered among the ancient ones, but otherwise at least one neighborhood is unchanged. I can breathe there.
Heading out of town on the way back to the Charlotte airport, after making wrong turns on what I thought would be a simple Siri-free drive to Hwy 64, I decide to drive through the first neighborhood, in Apex, my family owned a home in when we moved to North Carolina in 1988. I get lost somewhere between a new Costco shopping center and where the high school Nicholas attended was but now is not. I never get to the house, but end up in what was a decrepit tiny town but is now super cute.
I love the friends I had when this was my home. I felt loved and cherished spending time with them again, just as they always had made me feel. I miss what we had then. But, like me, they have moved on with their lives and the lovely evening we spend together is more time travel than reality. I look forward to hosting them at my home someday (some have already been). I will lavish hospitality on them as I share my new familiar. But while I will continue to visit my grandchildren at the other end of the state, I will not return to Raleigh. I am a stranger in a strange land there.
My American Airlines flight flew close to Mt. Rainier in the glow of the setting sun before making a wide circle over the entirety of Seattle and its islands as the moon cast a ribbon of light on its waterways. I usually fly American, but only one other time in the more than 40 years since I left home, do I recall it taking that same long eye-popping loop. We were 40 minutes early. Maybe the crew was eager to be home too.
“Are you home?” my seat mate asked as we touched down. “Yes,” I said. “Oh, yes.” Good and truly home.