CHICAGO — If you can’t go home again, why do they hold homecomings?
In my suburban hometown, the prairie is just starting to pop — a maple here, a birch there. Damn these wide lush lawns, soft as quilts. You know you’ll always be a Midwestern guy when you still have grass envy.
In a couple of weeks, “the caps are off the paints,” as Illinois poet June Luvisi once wrote. Till then, the sky puts on a fine fall show: big clouds, puffy clouds. You could sprinkle some flour and bake these clouds. Might be the initial feathered edges of the Milky Way.
Always been a sucker for stuff that glows: sunsets, fire pits, rising moons. Pumpkins on the porch. Children’s cheeks after autumn recess.
And now homecomings. Our most American month, October is.
I’m spending some of it here, amid what my wife used to call “the square-faced Midwesterners,” wearing flannel shirts and big welcome-back grins.
As you know, I am a collector of inconsequential moments. I like the way small groups laugh together in bars or the way they hug good night after too much dinner. I like the waitress in the diner who is almost too eager to help.
“Everything still OK over here?” she asks for the 27th time.
Yeah. Thanks. Go away.
There is lots of overt niceness here, for it is homecoming — a local holiday here in Barrington — and the cool Canadian air has everyone a little extra pumped.
The class of ‘79 is working late on an elaborate float, in a big empty barn that smells like Carl Sandburg.
Conversely, my classmates (class of ‘74) will ride in the parade in a pickup truck with a flask and a single bale of hay.
We’re all happier.
This is my 45th reunion, and the first one I’ve managed to make. Probably not my last, as with lots of things you avoid and then end up enjoying. Now I’m hooked.
One programming note: After 45 years, I’m still awkward around Sue Kelly, one of the class beauties who seemed out of everyone’s league.
You know, it’s all a little wistful, a little Hallmark, as homecomings should be. There’s a parade, and a tailgate party, then a football game on the edge of town, in the kind of high school stadium where a million memories are made.
After all, that’s what hometowns are: Memory factories. Benchmarks. Comfort zones.
I want to put this place in a pipe and smoke it.
Of course, at a 45th high school reunion, there is more life behind us than in front. The tendency is to look back, perhaps too much.
A nice development: “We’ve finally quit talking about our kids,” as one friend noted.
Remember those endless dialogues, when we were all just passengers in our children’s lives? We had nothing to chat about but soccer and travel ball and tutors.
Now we do. For many, there are grandchildren. But there are also retirements and next chapters. Good, long marriages. Vacation homes. Hip surgeries. A new novel “you just have to read.”
The banter is brisk and easy. I’ve known some of these “kids” since kindergarten. Is there anything better than a slap on the back from a boyhood pal?
“Hey Vic, wanna throw the football?”
In some of the faces you see forever (mine looks like a catcher’s mitt). I guess 45 years is a long way from Algebra II.
My classmates’ eyes are good though, twinkling and filled with fall. Amazing eyes. And smiles you can land a plane on.
But I have to go now. I am overflowing with Bloody Mary mix, and my fingers are turning into brats. My hands are sore from all the hearty handshakes. If I stay much longer, I’ll readopt that broad Midwestern patois, as flat as the surrounding farmland.
“You’re an L.A. guy now,” my sister says (pronouncing “now” as nay-owe).
Not sure what “L.A. guy” means. I prefer dark blazers over crisp white shirts, so there’s that. I wear flip-flops till Christmas. I once tried yoga. I am always just a little tan.
An L.A. guy? Not such a bad thing, though I fear old college buddies would mock that.
“Hey, Wink Martindale, your turn to buy,” they’d say at the saloon.
But I’m not Wink. And I’m certainly not Mike Ditka, the beloved Bears coach and broad-shouldered mascot for this marvelous city.
I’m probably some sort of hybrid, part prairie kid who can still saddle a horse, part L.A. guy who has to ponder the ocean once a month.
In any case, I’ll always have a soft spot for this old village, with its vintage movie theater and country roads. Its ponds and marshes. Its deer and geese.
Inconsequential stuff? No way.
So yeah, it’s been kind of a Hallmark homecoming.
As Ditka would say: “You got a problem with dat?”