Shanti Emerson: You can go home again
Thomas Wolfe titled his famous book, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” but Thomas, yes I can. I just went there.
I’ve been fortunate that I’ve lived in five states, five different California cities, and probably 20 different houses. Each move has been as deep a learning experience as getting a college degree.
What I think author Wolfe meant was that once you leave home, you will never be the same again and neither will your relationships. So when you go back, it’s different. You look at it from a broader perspective. Things you hadn’t noticed before show up because they are unique to that area. Other aspects which you have become used to in your new home, aren’t there. But even so, you can still keep your friends, and your affection of that place.
I know many people brag that they are fifth or even ninth generation Californians. But to me, that is nothing to boast about. It just means that their families did not move. Mine did, and I learned so much about the character and people of our country.
I was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, during World War II while my father was at Officers Training School in New Jersey. He didn’t see me until I was 10 days old and soon was off to fight in the war in Italy and North Africa. According to family legend, once home, I wrapped my tiny fingers around his left eyebrow and twisted it. It was the only scar he received in the war.
After the war, we moved to the middle of Kansas … not in a city or town but in the country. My parents and I lived in a small asbestos-shingled house owned by his employer, Conoco. There was a forest filled with pheasants and doves in front, a field full of oil derricks in back, and about 10 other tiny company-owned houses to the left. I was lucky that there were two sisters for me to play with. The two nearby towns, Geneseo (population 271) and Lyons (population 3,739), make Grass Valley and Nevada City look like Paris and Rome.
After one year, my mother told my dad, “I’m going to Fort Lauderdale and will come back when you get me out of Kansas!”
And he did. So we moved to Ponca City, Oklahoma, a town dominated by the oil industry. Everyone’s fathers seemed to work for Conoco or Texaco or Citco. Amazingly, I got a great elementary education with specialized teachers for art, library, science, P.E., reading and math. I was learning art history in the second grade and got to see those same paintings in great European museums decades later. My best friend, Kitsy, was the daughter of the chief of police, and we had great times together. However, my time in Ponca City did not prepare me for the next big move … to Houston, Texas.
At that time, Houston was the oil capital of the world, boasting of skyscrapers named after Texaco, Conoco, Penzoil, Humble (now Exxon), and others. The lawyers and bankers were there for the oil companies. It was so challenging for a smal-town girl to be a part of such a huge city. Little did I know that one day I would be a Houston debutante. It was there that I dug in some roots and lived for 23 years. I went to school, got married and had children in Houston.
After that, I moved to Pasadena with its Craftsman Era houses, the Norton Simon Art Museum, the Wrigley Mansion, the Rose Bowl Parade, and the Huntington Museum. It is an ethnically diverse city which seems to work in racial harmony. I lived there for 20 tumultuous years.
Then I moved to San Francisco with its Victorian homes, hills, and political energy. There I learned to drink lattes and chai and taught at the Academy of Art College.
After seven interesting San Francisco years, I discovered the heavenly Nevada County and moved here as quickly as possible 20 years ago.
I have whole city maps in my head and can drive where I need to go. Each place has so much going for it. Each place offers a glimpse of the character of our country and our people.
But when I go “home,” it is Houston. It is the fourth-largest city in the U.S. and is on its way to becoming No. 3. Although the geography in Houston, as well as most of Texas, is nothing to brag about, the houses are exquisite, and the oak trees spreading their limbs across beautiful boulevards are inspirational to see.
It is there that I just saw a Van Gogh exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, where I used to be a docent, and experienced theater-in-the-round. It is there that I got to visit with friends whom I’ve known for fifty to sixty-five years. It is there that I got to eat red snapper, crab, oysters, real Tex Mex and celebrate Cinco de Mayo with mariachis and margaritas.
When I left Houston so many years ago, my friends and I were young parents and now we’re grandparents. As I moved West, some of my political and religious beliefs went left, but not all of them. Politics are simply not discussed and certainly not “He who must not be named.”
At an elegant party held in my honor at Inwood Manor towering high above the beautiful River Oaks section, I gave each friend a Certificate of Merit for being my pal for so long and enduring my name, location, and partner changes. My affection for them will never change.
So the more accurate book title is “Home is Where the Heart Is” and my love of Houston, Pasadena, and San Francisco is with me every day but even more, my love for Nevada County.
Shanti Emerson is a Nevada County resident and a member of The Union Editorial Board. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the board or its members. She can be reached at EditBoard@TheUnion.com.
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