Just Another Town… Again

Dearest Rachel –

I want to say that it wasn’t all that long ago, but we both know better than that. High school, for both of us, was more than half a lifetime back – more like two-thirds, in fact – but the gaps tend to fill in with so many days that were indistinguishable from one another that they don’t always seem as long as they really were. Which is a pity, because those were the days we spent together, and I don’t want to admit that they’re fading from memory like that. But I digress.

In high school, at least where I grew up, there was a lot of thought put into our individual academic futures – at least, among the kids I considered to be peers. It was rarely a matter of whether we would go to university, but for what and where to do so. And while there were the true high-flyers and big dreamers who shot for Ivy League and other ultra-prestigious schools, the usual consensus was that each of us would be attending one in-state school or another, as they were assumed to be more than adequate for a college education, and reasonably economical for us middle-class kids.

The question was, where were these places? Growing up in suburban Chicago, we had a peculiar view of our state; there was the city of Chicago proper, the Cook county suburbs we called home that were distinct from it, the collar counties that surrounded us (with their own suburban/exurban ethos), and… everywhere else. That being considered little more than emptiness and cornfields between tiny little podunk towns. And yet, supposedly, those big name in-state universities were situated in said towns in the hinterlands, which, to most of us, felt like they might as well be on the surface of the moon for all their distance.

I suspect some of this attitude had to do with the fact that, until the latter half of our high school careers, we couldn’t travel these allegedly vast distances, having neither license nor car. Even then, without a map (and you’ll recall, these were the days before GPS and Google Maps – or even MapQuest, heaven help us – this was when you navigated by those immense 11×17 volumes of state atlases from triple-A or the like, and required at least a partner riding shotgun to even open it up, let alone look at it), you would never find places like Champaign-Urbana, Bloomington-Normal, Carbondale, Effingham… or Macomb. Admittedly, at least the last three had the virtue of letting you know that they were in the southern, eastern and western part of the state (I don’t count NIU in all of this; DeKalb, even then, was close enough to the ‘collar’ to be considered exurban, and at this point, it’s practically been swallowed up in the ever-expanding urban sprawl), but beyond that, who knew? You had to study to get accepted at any of these place (well, mostly; there’s a story for another time), yes, but you had to study to figure out how to literally get there, too.

I say this is a peculiar perspective; I’m probably overstating things. I suspect there are many states – and even countries! – where the prevailing attitude is that it’s comprised of ‘the city,’ and ‘everywhere else.’ ‘Upstate New York’ is almost a mirror image of ‘downstate Illinois,’ for example, complete with the antipathy between urban and rural that we suburbanites found ourselves constantly straddling. Other states have similar setups, albeit to a lesser degree – even if it’s only the capital versus those living in ‘ordinary’ towns. And on a larger scale, consider London and Tokyo in comparison to Britain and Japan as a whole. Outside of the city, to one living there, there is essentially nothing; just a bunch of empty land, and the occasional town, just like any other.

I remember, in particular, a senior of mine who wound up enrolling at WIU, and complaining about how there was no easy way to get there. Where I went, it was a straight shot down the Stevenson (I-55), but you had to drive backroads to get to Macomb. At the time, it never crossed my mind that, even as I might agree with Sue, I would, at some point in the future, have at least two particular routes so well memorized that I would have no need of a map were I required to drive myself down there today, for whatever reason.

But here we are. After so many trips to see your folks over one holiday or the other, and the increase in travel as their health waned (and eventually, as we had to deal with settling their estates in turn), the trip to Macomb became ingrained in each of us. You, especially, since it was home, and they were your parents, and you went down there so much more frequently than I simply because you could (as a stay-at-home mother). But I learned the ways fairly quickly, too, and the trip could almost be done automatically, as long as we had entertainment to fill those four-plus idle hours of blank space outside the car windows.

I’d be willing to bet I could still make the trip at this point unassisted, despite the fact that we haven’t been there in at least two years now. After all, Twofeathers and Stan live in the house you grew up in, so Daniel and I would be interlopers in a house that was never really ‘ours’ to begin with. This was your hometown, not mine. There’s nothing left there for me anymore, any more than there might be in any other downstate town.

I say all this because, just this morning, I found myself dealing with the last of this month’s bills, including a letter from the company that handles the utilities (I’m not sure if it’s the gas or electric, from the name, but they send a fair amount of advertising and energy-saving tips my way) for the Macomb house. Yes, I’m still handling a few of those, honey – you know about their circumstances, and I’m of the understanding that this is something you would have approved of, if not outright insisted upon for their sakes. But as I was dealing with it, it occurred to me that I’m likely to never head that way again. Why should I? The bills can be paid from here, and that’s all that’s needed. What sentimental attachment there was to the place was tied up in you, and with you gone, it’s just another town in the middle of a whole lot of empty space… again.

Sorry to send you such a downer note, especially on a Monday as the holiday season begins. This is supposed to be a time for warm sentimentality, as we remember friends and family, and get together with people from our past for old time’s sake. But when they’re gone, the places they came from lose their importance, and blend back into the background once again. It’s just how things are; and I figured I might as well explain myself to you about that. Hope it makes sense.

Until next time, keep an eye on me, and wish me luck. I’m going to need it.

Published by randy@letters-to-rachel.memorial

I am Rachel's husband. Was. I'm still trying to deal with it. I probably always will be.

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