East Middle School

I’ve been staring at this picture for a long time now. Months, actually. For months this picture has been on my desktop. I found it while I was researching historical buildings in my hometown (don’t ask), and I snatched it up because this building doesn’t exist anymore. It’s gone. Bulldozed. It’s just an empty lot there now and whenever I am back in Kansas I pass it, and a million memories come flooding back from that piece of land on the corner of 4th and Chestnut. Some of the memories are not even my own. They belong to my older sisters, friends, people who went to school in this building eons before I ever stepped foot in it.

The building was East Middle School when I was there in the mid-90s, but before that it was East Junior High, and before that it was Leavenworth Senior High, the first public high school in Leavenworth. And the more I look at it this picture, the more it conjures up, and the more sad I become. This was one heck of a school. Sure there was a tornado tunnel in the basement. And sure ceiling tiles routinely fell on us when we were in gym class. And even sure, sure, there were rats, but man, oh man, this school meant a lot to me. It meant a lot to a lot of people, and now it’s just gone.

I’m not sad of course to see the building gone. It was time for upgrades that the city couldn’t afford. So the church next door bought it, and even they couldn’t afford the upgrades, so eventually it was bulldozed. I’m sad in the way you get sad when you attach memories, deep, nostalgic, childhood memories to a place. A building. A room. A town. And then that place leaves. Or maybe you leave. And it feels like a betrayal. Even though I left this school, this community, this town, this state twenty years ago, I still feel betrayed, and also guilt, because betrayal is only one part of this mixed bag.

There was another empty field a block from where this one is now. It was owned by East Middle School and it was a regular part of our day to walk to the field for kickball games, or gym class, or games of baseball after school if you could scrounge up enough kids. But where this school was located, right in the heart of Leavenworth, across from City Hall, a couple of blocks from “Downtown,” across from the unemployment office, and next to the only pay-what-you-can walk in clinic in town, well, it wasn’t exactly what you would call a safe area. In fact, many times on the walk to our field, we would pass people smoking out of balconies, yelling things down to us. Our gym coach would tell us to ignore them. She’d tell all 30 or so of us middle school girls to walk in pairs, to ignore the looks from the old men shuffling by on the way to the senior center. We ignored the men and women, still drunk from the night before, arguing on stoops, about whether or not one of them had come home the night before. We ignored the racist gravity scribbled outside the little Korean grocery store, with the neon signs, inviting, but not overly welcoming. Today I wince as I remember, but back then, back then it was just part of this life. These memories serve me well sometimes. A reminder. These memories didn’t mean too much to me back then, but they are becoming more precious as the years drag on.

Once, the whole seventh grade walked to the gym lot, which is now a Domino’s Pizza, to set off rockets we had made in science class. It was a sticky-hot, midwestern day, but the blue sky and the clean air conjured up a song, so we sang. We walked down the cracked sidewalks, around the fire hydrants, past the Section 8 apartment complex, and through the open field across from the public library and we spontaneoulsy sang, “Home, home on the range. Where the deer and the antelope play. Where seldom is heard, a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day.”

We sang and we laughed. We ran around the field before the teachers calmed us. We yelled at passing cars. We listened for horns blaring. We blasted rockets into the air. We dreamed of what this life would one day be. I don’t think any of us envisioned an empty lot. Or a Domino’s pizza. Just blue skies as far as the eye could see.

M.

KC to STL

There is a stretch of I-70 that takes you across Missouri, from Kansas City to St Louis, in less than three hours. Well, Siri told me it takes three-and-a-half hours, but you know how I do. I have traveled this stretch of highway more times than I can count, starting with the first time I recall making the trip, when I was invited to a weekend away with my friend Amanda and her parents in middle school. Or maybe it was high school? I don’t exactly remember, but I do recall that we were young enough to be entertained by both the glass elevators at The Embassy Suites and choosing which flavor of Ben and Jerry’s to buy for a night of movies and ice cream in our hotel room. I’m a Phish Food girl, pretty sure Amanda was a Chunky Monkey or maybe a Cherry Garcia.

Speaking of Chunky Monkey, on a spur of the moment weekend getaway with my friend Rachel on this same stretch of highway, we were walking back to our hotel room from visiting the Arch and having dinner, and it was dark, and we noticed a crack of light coming from a window. We were walking and laughing, and I was in front of Rachel on the small sidewalk, so I looked inside the window, as one does, as I passed by. Then for a split second I froze. I wasn’t sure at first what I was looking at, then it hit me. There was a porn playing on the television in the room, and sitting on the edge of the bed was a naked, middle-aged man, and he was masturbating. A couple full seconds later, I sped past the window and motioned to Rachel to look inside. She stopped in her tracks for a moment, a little scared at what she might see. I should add here that Rachel and I we were young, 17 and 18, respectively. This was the absolute first time we had ever seen this before. Rachel crept up and peeked in, and her jaw hit the ground, then we ran to our room laughing. We talked until we fell asleep about how dumb that “old” man was to have accidentally left the curtain open. Oh how dumb we were to think that a middle-aged man would “accidentally” leave a curtain open…

So yeah, I’ve had some fun on this particular stretch of highway between Kansas City and St. Louis. A lot of people have. Because this stretch of interstate connects Kansas City, Columbia, St. Louis, and it’s estimated that almost 20,000 cars drive on it daily. Not across the state, but somewhere on this “radical, socialist” highway. 🙂 This is the easiest and fastest way to transverse the entire state of Missouri, though it isn’t the prettiest. It’s actually really, really boring. Not to mention the fact that you pass MU (University of Missouri) and eww. Be careful there. #TigersSuck They are also kinda rude and a little snotty. Like wannabe New Yorkers, but without the actual street cred.

All I’m saying is, if you wanna see the real beauty of the state of Missouri (and yes, there is beauty in the state of Missouri) just don’t take I-70 from Kansas City to St. Louis. But if you’re forced to, head toward Kansas City, not away from it, as Kansas City is the better of the two places. Unless you haven’t been inside the Arch, well then do that, but just once. Know that it’s awkward, and claustrophobic, and when you get to the top, and if the wind is blowing strong that day, you can feel it. But the views are pretty cool! If you’re into views.

Anyway, this particular stretch of Highway has been around, so it does have some problems. A lot of construction a lot of the time, but it was the first installment of President Eisenhower’s “radical, socialist-propaganda” called the Interstate System. Missouri was actually an early adopter of this system, probably because they knew they’d have to play a major role in any cross country trip. They were already home to historic Route 66 (and the first ones to lay the road) and they knew what an interstate could do to their economy. In fact, the state was awarded a contract for work on US 40 (I-70) on August 2, 1956, and became the first project to be awarded and work initiated after the signing of Eisenhower’s act. So the state of Missouri has a claim on “two firsts,” both the first to build Route 66 and the first to build Interstate 70. Pretty cool, Missouri, pretty cool.

So there she sits. A long, stretch of Highway that crosses Missouri at its least interesting points. It’s rolling hills are pleasant enough, but, and there’s a big but, if you ever find yourself transversing the old “Show Me” state on I-70, take a couple of those detours. Not the forced ones due to construction, rather the “backroads,” of the area. Get lost. Go off the grid. Missouri is bound to surprise you. It’s always surprised me.

M.

Worth Leavin’

When I was in high school my mom and I moved into an apartment complex with townhouses. This was the biggest, nicest place we had ever lived in, and it was near the high school and near my mom’s work. It had three levels, including an unfinished basement for storage and laundry. The kitchen, living room, and a bathroom were on the main floor, and there were three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. All the bedrooms were roughly the same size, so my mom took a room on one end of the hall and gave me the room on the other end, next to the bathroom. I don’t remember what was in the middle bedroom. It’s possible it was home to my mom’s small china hutch, the one that houses relics from years past. It’s possible it had a dresser for extra clothes, or maybe my mom’s old green rocking chair. I don’t think it had an extra bed. I don’t think we ever had a bed we would consider “extra.”

I might not remember too much about the second bedroom, but I do remember quite a bit about that townhouse, and the years I lived there. I remember the night someone threw a brick into our neighbor’s glass window and stole a bunch of money from him while he slept upstairs. I remember the way the apartment complex gave way to a trailer park, the “good” trailer park. I remember that when the grass got cut the maintenance men did it so fast, that they missed large portions of it. I remember the rollings hills in between the rows of houses. I remember the playground. The basketball court. The laundry room. The dark, poop brown of the cabinets. I remember the small slab of concrete off the back sliding door where we kept an old, unused grill. I remember the constant feeling of being pressed down, while we lived there. What felt like the inability to catch my breath. The thought that this was it. This was as nice as my life was going to get. The concern that I was in this cycle of poverty, and there was no way out.

It’s a nasty feeling, feeling like you are stuck in a place that you don’t want to be. I would take evening walks around the apartment complex, sometimes down through the trailer park and envision what my life might be. Would I live in a trailer one day? Was it bad to live in one? Some of them looked nice. They had fenced yards, and little pop-up pools. Some had add-ons and car ports. Was this my next step? Did I get married, buy a trailer, have a couple of kids, and work my 40 hours a week, while I watched my husband drink beer with the other men in the trailer park on Sunday afternoons? It all seemed too sad. Too real. Much too real.

I remember walking on the other side of the street one day. There was a subdivision on that side that I had never been through before. The street that separated us was a busy five lane road that ran from one side of town, where the cities of Leavenworth and Lansing met, to the other side of town, ending at the Federal Prison. It wasn’t too hopeful for a sad teenage girl, my hometown. The thing I noticed first about this subdivision, was that unlike my apartment complex, they had a wooden privacy fence running the length of their property, shielding their quiet backyards, and their precious children, from the traffic that clogged up that street.

The more I walked, the more I noticed about the people who lived there. Two car garages meant two parents. Two parents meant more income. More income meant treehouses, and soccer teams, and trips to Florida in the summertime, all things I had no idea about. I pieced together what I knew about my friends’ families. The nice houses they had, the way their mother’s were home all day with stews in crockpots, and at the dinner table at night helping with homework. During this time my mother had developed a gambling addiction, and spent most of her evenings at the casinos in Kansas City. So had my sisters and a few close friends. I was alone a lot of the time, but that was okay by me. It gave me time to dream of my leaving. That was the running joke as a teenager in Leavenworth. Wasn’t Leavenworth really just Worth Leavin’?

I’ve come to see that as a critical point in my life. My walking, my meandering around my hometown. Wondering what would happen to me if I left, more importantly, what would happen to me if I stayed. I knew then, on the day that I walked through that subdivision, that I wasn’t going to stick around to find out.

Sometimes I get sad when I think back to the choices I made. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened had I stayed. Sometimes I wish I could help other people leave. Sometimes I just want to tell that younger Missy that it is all okay. That she is different, and a little weird, and yeah, maybe she doesn’t belong there, or anywhere, but that it will all make sense. One day.

M.

Home is Where Your Shit Is

We were driving back to Atlanta last weekend, after being in Southern Missouri for a week, and my husband and I were talking about that word Home, and what it means to us. You see, Southern Missouri used to be our home. We lived there for 10 years. We graduated college there. We were married there. We started our little family there. We made everlasting friends there. His mother still lives in Southern Missouri, and we go back to visit from time to time. And when we go visit we say, as we do when we go to Kansas, that we are going home. But lately, I have started to feel different about Southern Missouri. About all the places I have lived before. And over the last few months when someone asks where we are from, I have caught myself saying that we are from Charlotte. And I have been trying to figure out why.

I mentioned this to my husband, while we shoved our mouths full of road trip food and tried to stay awake in the searing dusk. I told him that I think I give that word too much power. That the older I get the more I realize that I am lost and that I don’t really know what makes something, or someone, feel like home. I told him that we use our home too often as a way to define who we are and what we can accomplish. I told him that seems somewhat limiting. He told he wanted to sleep in his own bed. Truth be told, I did too, but I was more caught up in the places I have called home, and how even when I go back to those places, I yearn to be back to my current home.

Living in Atlanta isn’t so bad. In fact, I had built it up to be this monster of a place, and really it isn’t any different than any other city. It has its “good” parts and its “bad”. It has sweet, kind people. And it has people who scare you a little. It has great drivers, and crazy, aggressive drivers. It is just a lot of people, from a lot of different homes, mixed up together in a tiny area trying to get by. And honestly, it feels surprisingly good to be a part of the ebb and flow of the ATL. It, dare I say, feels like home?

So how can Southern Missouri, and Leavenworth, Kansas, and Charlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta all feel like home to me? The closest I can come up with is the people I am doing this damn life with are my home, and while there are some constants, my husband, my son, my dog, there are other people too. There are the neighbors. The ones in our cul-de-sac now are not that different from the ones who were on our street in Charlotte. We have Mr. Charlie, and Mrs. Kim, and Chris and Christy, and yes even Ginger and Scooter. And they smile and they wave. They check on our house when we are gone, and they pull our trash cans up from the curb if we forget. There are whole communities and lovely people inside each of the places we have called home.

There is my favorite Target, and the one I will go to in a pinch. There is the good Dunkin and the bad one. The clean Kroger and the dirty one. There is that coffee shop at the corner where people sit for a spell and talk about their day. There is that game store that sells comic books and Magic cards. There is IKEA, and TJ Maxx, and Walmart. Dear Baby Jesus, there are the Walmarts.

There are the neighbors who wave and those who don’t. There are the moms in the PTO who are a little crazy, but manage to get it all done. There are the teachers who love your kid like crazy, and the ones you wonder about. There are the post office employees who keep smiling, even when they really want to hit that woman in front of the line who doesn’t know how stamps work. There are the pharmacists who tell the same thing to 100 different people every day. Yes, this pill might make you sick to your stomach. Take it with food, please.

There are the brainwashed Chick-fil-A employees, and the Jesus Saves guys on mopeds. There are the little women who ask which church you belong to and would you like to come to Sunday service? There are dads mowing lawns in New balance sneakers, yelling about gas prices, and how hard it is to start this damn weed-eater, I swear I’m going to buy a new one soon.

There are people asking for money with signs that say, Veteran and Anything Helps. There are the drug dealers who deal in dime bags and the ones who deal in cartel meth. There are the women who wear too much perfume and the ones who insist on make-up to workout. There are the teenagers sneaking a six-pack down to the river, so they can listen to music and make out with that red-headed girl.

And all of these people live in all of these places. And all of these places are home. Someone’s home. And in the end, it doesn’t matter so much which home was yours. Which one you wanted to belong to, which ones you never did. Because for as much as each of these homes is unique, they are also so very much alike. And sometimes we forget that. And sometimes we need a reminder.

“I think maybe home is where your shit is,” I told my husband somewhere between Tupelo and Birmingham.

He smiled. “I think you might be right.”

M.

Going Home Again

Home has always been a tough word for me. Home means sad, tragic at the worst times, ambivalent at the best. I don’t come from a place that is totally electric, or unusual, or even beautiful. I’m not from NYC, or Las Vegas, or one of those small southern towns with quaint shops around a city square, and rampant white supremacy. I am from the midwest. From Kansas. From Leavenworth. Perhaps you have heard of it? Maybe in an old John Wayne western, or a documentary on the military, or a book about famous serial killers? Perhaps you just know it sounds familiar, but you can’t quite place it? Yeah, that’s it. That’s Leavenworth, Kansas.

I left Leavenworth 15 years ago this August. It wasn’t the first time I left, but it was the only time I ever left and thought, yep, I’m never moving back there again. And this year was the first time in those 15 years that I contemplated moving back there again. I’m not sure what it was, the draw to go back home. But it was there, on my mind, when my husband and I were going through possible relocations with his company. Kansas City popped up on the list. Bonner Springs to be exact. Bonner Springs is in Leavenworth County. It is about 20 minutes from the high school we graduated from. Twenty minutes from my mom, and my sisters, and my best friend. And we thought about it. Like really thought about it. Then ultimately we decided against going home again. For good. For now.

But as I type this I am gearing up for a trip home tomorrow. I am gearing up in the physical sense. Washing a last-minute load of laundry. Making sure I have an appropriate outfit for a graduation. Gathering Jackson’s toys. Packing healthy road trip snacks. I’m also gearing up for a trip home mentally. It has been over a year since I have been home. Last year we decided to take other trips. We visited New York City, and Tucson, Arizona, and Chicago, rather than spending time at home. And while those are all lovely places, home still called.

It used to be that when I went back home, I wanted to leave as soon as I got there. I was immediately transported back to that feeling I had in high school. That feeling of being stuck. Of suffocating. Walking the tree-lined streets of downtown made me tense up. Seeing the same old buildings I had grown up with, the familiar people. Unchanging, other than the wrinkling faces and graying hair. After a weekend of being home, I would squeeze my husband’s hand and say, “It’s time to go.” I’m preparing for that feeling again, even though the last time I went home that didn’t happen. In fact, I wanted to stay longer. To enjoy the people and places more. I was surprised and I didn’t take notice of how or why it had changed. And I still don’t know. And I don’t know if this time will be the same, or if I will want to run away after 48 hours. But I’m prepping myself for both.

I don’t know what to do with these feelings about home. How sometimes I want to never look back, and sometimes that is all I want to do. Leavenworth is always there with me. Right on the fringe of my memories. It touches all that I do today, and most of what I write. And well, I should be grateful. Maybe this is me, becoming grateful.

M.