Back in Newport News

On Sunday I had to make my way back down to Virginia for a family emergency. While the cause was not pleasant, it was nice to be back in the town of my birth, for the first time in about ten years.

In the summer of 2000 my parents sold our family home and relocated to the family farm near Asheville, North Carolina. And that, I thought, was that, as far as visiting home. While I had friends in town, somehow I just couldn’t manage to make the trip from Boston, then later Seattle. So much of the town had changed since I grew up; it didn’t feel like I had a reason to come back.

But on Sunday, as I drove down from Dulles, around Richmond and into the hospital at Williamsburg, I started being aware of uncanny memories in my muscles. I knew where that on-ramp to 295 was; I knew how long I had before getting off on 64. After visiting in the hospital, I knew how to make my way down 199 into the center of Colonial Williamsburg and to drive around Merchant’s Square. I remembered the twists and turns to get back out of town on Rt. 60 (okay, my sister had to help a little with that one), and all the bits and pieces of the drive back into Newport News from there. And I remembered how to turn just there, off Denbigh Boulevard and up Old Courthouse Way, and take the back roads into the old neighborhood. As I turned onto Nicewood Drive it was a weird feeling, as though my parents would be there in the old house waiting with dinner made.

Muscle memory gave way to emotional memory, and I was riding my bike to the comic store, getting on the bus to go to school, washing the family cars in the driveway. Even the sight of someone else’s stuff through the big picture windows in the living room of the house didn’t break the spell.

But it was overlaid with different perspectives. I was conscious, really conscious, of a fact that had never seemed important when I was growing up: how close I was to the wetlands. Newport News is on a peninsula between the James and York Rivers, and at the edges is all estuary and wetlands. And somehow, growing up, my mental axes were aligned to the roads that led out of town; I never understood how close I was to those wet edges. Turns out, it’s darned close.

I drove to the family friends who were putting up my parents and sister, and when we got the call that other family friends were ready for me to come, drove down to Beechmont and after catching up went to bed.

And in the morning, I opened the curtains in the guest bedroom and saw the picture above. And the trees and red leaves and reeds and the creek and all, and I suddenly missed the place I was born.