Salty Words

Welcoming Myself Home

At last

By Russell Worth Parker

I was born and raised in Georgia, and if man was born of dust, I am surely made of red clay. My people’s bones rest in that iron-rich soil; decades of granite testimony spread across small church graveyards and a hilltop clearing walled by magnolia and pine and kudzu. Over generations, we’ve expanded outward from our familial center, and hence my ashes will be cast upon the salt farther south. I will drift, clouding the water for a moment, then settle; as much a part of the marsh and mud as it has been of me since I first smelled salt on the wind rolling across green miles of swaying spartina and shifting tide.

Carson McCullers said, “We are homesick most for the places we have never known.” I suspect that is the truth that drove me from the home I knew when I was 17 years old, and for 30 years now, I’ve been trying to find my way back. In that journey, I’ve been blessed to feel Alpine breezes so cold my lungs ached. I’ve watched the sunlight spread across the waking Great Barrier Reef from beneath the surface of the Coral Sea, and been surprised by a blue whale silently slipping within 20 feet of me before I realized I was a few fin kicks and many orders of insignificance from a curious Leviathan.

I’ve anxiously guided parachutes into the waiting desert, steering long, lazy “S-turns” through the night sky, and then landed amongst giant saguaro cactus and petrified wood that still bears its grain thousands of years after it fell. I’ve experienced the best of humanity when I needed it most and its worst in places Lonely Planet doesn’t go. But in all that time, it’s always been the rippling marsh, the mud holding millions of years of our collective experience reduced to its most elemental, and the insistence of the rising and falling tide that called to me.

Colored by the sum of all of that, July 10, 2019, was a day of epiphany.

We left our rental house in Arlington, Virginia, for the last time that morning, bound for our home in Wilmington, itself rented as we’ve been gone this last three years. It’s a drive I’ve made a number of times since we left the Port City in 2016. As always, the knot in my shoulders began to ease at Roanoke Rapids, growing ever looser as I left the highway to pass through Goldsboro, then farther southward to I-40.

That last hour on the highway is always a relaxing time, a heady mix of anticipation and reflection. But as I left the highway at Exit 420 and pulled onto 117 toward Gordon Road, it struck me that this moment was starkly different from those preceding. For the first time since I was 17, I was arriving somewhere with no intention of departing.

There is no sundown on this assignment. We are in Wilmington not just because the Marine Corps told us to be, but because we want to be. We are here because it is home. It’s a feeling grown unfamiliar over three decades, but it’s one I like very much.

Georgia will always be where I am from and where I will ultimately go; the bookends of my life. But in between those bookends are the lessons and experiences that have truly taken me home. It’s a span of time that seems to have passed in a blur of states and countries, schools and jobs, and now I feel suddenly snapped into the present as if I had long been lost in thought, suddenly realizing we’ve arrived at a place for which we set out so long ago.

I don’t know if Thomas Wolfe was right or not. Maybe we can’t go home again. Maybe home is really just a moment frozen by our subconscious; a snapshot we select according to the thing we need to most believe about who we are and where we come from. But if home is ultimately transient and mutable, defined by the people and senses that matter most to us, then we can define where home is at any moment. And in that, we can come home whenever we want.

Home.

It’s the place where our daughter, Annabelle, a precocious, lively child who is affirmatively a “Carolina Girl” at age 8, is already set on veterinary school at NC State. It’s the place where Katy, my wife and ballast, has built a state-wide reputation for her work and her fundamental decency.

Home is people whose accents rest lyrically in my ears, and where “comfort food” is just food, a fact that reflects that comfort is part and parcel of home. Home is where I can walk to the water’s edge in the morning as a bulwark against whatever may come in the hours of the day that follows. Home is where the osprey screaming over Howe Creek still thrills my heart, and the bellowing of the frogs in our pond and the buzzing of insects in our trees are so loud that I have to raise my voice to tell Katy just how good it is to finally be here.

Russell Worth Parker lives and writes in Wilmington. He is proud to be Annabelle’s dad and Katy’s husband.

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