Am I a Native?

When I meet people, and they pick up on my slight southern accent, they’ll ask where I’m from. Louisville, I’ll answer, pronouncing it as any native would: Louavull. Louisville_SkylineBorn and raised there, and though I’ve been away for over 25 years, I still call it home. It’s where my mom is, the houses I grew up in, a fair number of my relatives and school mates, and all of the cultural and geographic touchstones of my young life. Where I learned to drive with my dad, the paths I walked to elementary, junior high, and high school, and the wonderful swim club built into a quarry where I spent my summers. The church I grew up in and was married in, parks where I ran, and the course of my one and only marathon. The office tower where I had my first full-time job, and the court where I was a juror.

Of course I visit as often as I can. For holidays with the family, summer trips, class reunions, and just because. And each time, I feel a slight twinge that I’ve become a stranger. Louisville has the nerve to be a vibrant living city that grows and changes, while my memories don’t. Much of what I visit is the same, but new things intrude: new businesses and restaurants, development on the riverfront, expanded roadways to new shopping malls. I have to ask directions, and I indulge in a common Louisville habit of giving and following directions including long-gone buildings: “Drive east till you get to the old Sears building, turn, then cross the railroad tracks.” or “ It’s next to the old Vogue Theatre.”

We’ve lived in Chicago for 10 years, and while I don’t call myself a native, I have learned my way around the expansive area called Chicagoland. Like all places you want to live, Chicago keeps your interest by growing and changing. Neighborhoods have transformed while I watched. The last Cabrini Green apartment towers are now a Target, the YMCA is a shopping and movie complex, the gas station is a gleaming Apple Store, and the tow lot (yes, I had to retrieve my car there once) is a boating store. Old rusting bridges have been replaced by wider ones, and new skyscrapers have taken their place in the Loop. People coming to Chicago now won’t have this weird double vision: seeing the current building, and simultaneously remembering when the corner looked different.

It’s exciting to see Chicago change around me; being there to see the transformation is part of owning it. True Chicago natives have much longer memories of changes they’ve observed, but I guess I’ve earned a sort of “junior native” status after a decade. If asked, “where do you live” I will say Chicago, happily. But where am I from? The Louisville of my deep memory, frozen in place, so I can revisit it always.

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