“Unless you were born here, you will never really be at home in this city.” Amy and I heard those words (or a variation thereof) over and over again in early 1996, as we met new people in our adopted hometown of Rockford, Illinois. We continued to hear them occasionally through the years; the last time I recall someone saying them in my presence was only a few months before we left Rockford for good. They were frequently uttered with a sense of frustration by people who, like us, had been born and raised elsewhere; but we heard them surprisingly often, too, from those who had always called Rockford their home.
You might suppose that, in the case of the natives, the words were a warning, an acknowledgement of an insularity peculiar to this midsized town in the middle of the Midwest—or perhaps one shared by similarly sized cities out here in flyover country. Yet they were more often than not tinged with a touch of sadness, a sense that the natives themselves no longer truly felt at home—and if they couldn’t, how could we?
Still, we decided that we at least had to try. After all, we never intended to leave Rockford; all of our future children would be born there, and our eldest daughter was only seven months old when we arrived. Trying, we hoped, would ensure that they would be natives, even if we could never be.
And somewhere along the line, we found ourselves at home. Or rather, I should say, we made ourselves at home.
Nearly 30 years ago, my then-professor Tom Ryba offered me advice when I was having doubts about my faith. If you’re not certain that you believe, he said, act as if you do. Faith is a gift, freely given by God, and we cannot earn it; but we can show Him that we desire it.
What is true of heaven is, in this case, true also here on earth: If you want to be at home, act as if you are at home. Make yourself at home—even if you were born and raised there. Becoming native to a place is not merely a matter of location or of the passage of sufficient time. It requires action—acting as if you belong, until one day you do.
And that’s what we did in Rockford. In this column (of which this is the final installment), I wrote about many of the public battles in which I played minor roles; but while I don’t regret a single hour spent on those crusades (quixotic or successful), I don’t have those actions primarily in mind. I mean instead the seemingly mundane things that became the habits of our lives: walking the streets of Edgewater and Churchill’s Grove in every season of the year; smoking 60 pounds of shoulder and selling Professor Pork’s pulled-pork sandwiches at the neighborhood garage sale; becoming an integral part of Saint Mary Oratory rather than just a family that met its obligation there every Sunday; making martinis for our neighbors when they were running low on gin; devoting hundreds of hours over many years to Annunciation Homeschool Co-op and Sacred Heart Classical Center; running with our own children and hundreds of others every year from March to December with the Rockford Wildcats; sitting at the bar at the Olympic Tavern until everybody knew our names.
Here’s a simple test: If it wouldn’t hurt to leave your home, then you don’t really have one.
The last person in Rockford that I heard say “you will never be at home in this city” was one of the first people who had said those words to me. When we met him and his wife in 1996, they were considering leaving the only town they have ever called home; they’re still thinking about it today. They will probably talk about it until one of them dies, and the other realizes that he or she is now bound to this place until the end of his or her days.
This time, though, he didn’t say those words to me, but to someone else who had just moved to Rockford. When she responded with a look of puzzlement and concern, he turned to me for confirmation—not as an outsider who could testify that I had been unable to go native after two decades, but as a native who understood why it could never be done.
In my first six weeks in Huntington, Indiana (our new hometown), I’ve heard those words just once, but I won’t be surprised to hear them again. If I do, I’ll simply react as I did the first time I heard them here: Smile, and nod, and remember what I should have known 22 years ago, but did not. We will be at home in Huntington because we will make ourselves at home here. We’ll walk its streets and worship in its two Catholic churches and rear our children and smoke pork and sit at the bar at the Rusty Dog and make friends whose passing will leave a deep pain in our hearts that we will salve with precious memories, until one day we are the ones to leave the memories behind when, God willing, Saint Peter invites us to make ourselves at home.