Earlier today, as I was driving around, I clicked on the radio to "A Prairie Home Companion". The music I heard took me back in time - the brass, the rhythms, the oompah and the accordians - I thought it was banda and eagerly awaited the back announce. But then they started singing and I realized that it wasn't Spanish, nor was in Portugese - no, it wasn't any language that I recognized. But the music itself was so achingly familiar that I almost wept with homesickness. Come to find out at the end of the music that it was the "Bride and Groom Polka" being sung and played by a traditional polka band out of Chicago!
Did I ever mention that I'm that rarity for my generation - a native Californian? Not only that, but my father was born in California and his father was and his mother's father was. And no, they weren't members of a Spanish Land grant family, though my grandmother's father's family once owned a large rancho in San Diego. It's been over 8 years now since we left California. Our last 13 years there, we owned and lived in a 1954 tract home in a cul-de-sac in the barrios of the San Fernando Valley. We shared a zip code with Pacoima, the stomping grounds of musician Richie Valens (birth name - Ricardo Valenzuela) - most famous for his phonetic rendition of a song his abuela taught him - La Bamba.
Living in los barrios was a little scary for us at first, and we never intended to stay there for so long. But houses for large families on a tight budget are always hard to come by, and so we stayed. The crime rate was really no higher than in other parts of the San Fernando Valley, meaning that you couldn't leave a bicycle unattended for more than 5 seconds or it would disappear. While we were moving in, my vacuum cleaner and a box labelled 'silverware' (actually very cheap stainless flatware) were stolen out of our living room. But once we got to know our neighbors, they looked out for us and we rarely locked the doors to the house. The garage, on the other hand......
Every weekend night, one or another family would have some kind of event. Even if it were only a small backyard cookout, there was always music. We grew accustomed to falling asleep to the sounds of banda, norteno, mariachi, and other less common styles of latin american music. Our closest parish (where we started out in but eventually left) had only 2 English Masses per week, but 7 Spanish weekend Masses and daily Mass was bilingual. Outside the local elementary school where one child went for 6th grade, you could find peddlers hawking hot tamales and champurrado from shopping carts before and after school. The billboards were mostly in Spanish, and the local chain supermarket carried fresh nixtamal, fresh masa, tripas, chicharonnes, and other mexican and latin american food items.
I visited the old neighborhood last year. The new owners of the house had put up cast iron fencing around the front yard and driveway. The roses that I planted in front, however, were still there and were thriving. The cul-de-sac looked a little dingier. A few miles away, in what had once been a large and mostly unused parking lot, entepreneurs had built up little concrete garage type buildings, and various small merchants sold a wild variety of items under awnings in front of the buildings. It reminded me of the mercado in Tecate or a similar small Mexican city.
It's hard to explain why places grab and hold on to me - especially when I have lived in so many of them in my life. I don't understand the process of how those memories are triggered, either. Very often it is from a snippet of music. "Hurt" by 9 Inch Nails will put me right back in Oklahoma, driving on the road between Tulsa and Tahlequah. Some kinds of bluegrassy country/folk music puts me back in Oregon, on the road between Eugene and Florence. I can close my eyes and listen to the music and see the road in my mind's eye. I have so many memories, visual and auditory, of the places I have lived. Even the ones I disliked, I can still remember so much and even the worst of them I have fondness for.
I don't fluster easily, but two standard questions will often throw me for a loop while I try to think out a reasonable yet honest answer, avoiding TMI. The first, "Where are you from?" The second, "How do you like New Hampshire?". I've been here now for nearly 5 years, but I still don't feel truthful if I say "I'm from Concord NH". And as for how I like New Hampshire, well that depends on the day and my mood! It isn't where I ever imagined I'd end up. Like any other place, it has its ups and downs. Yet I am very sure that if we ever leave here, I will end up missing it just as I miss almost every other place where I have lived.
I am getting tired of being homesick at random moments, but I guess that God is not-so-gently reminding me that my true home is not on this earth, that these days and these places are a gift from him but are temporal and not eternal.