“You can never go home again.”
I’m not sure who said that, but I have to disagree. You can go home again, and it can be a wonderful and poignant experience. At least that’s what it was for me.
To explain my six-week absence (in part), I went home for three weeks. Back to Georgia. Back to North Florida. Back to everything I knew before moving to New Zealand.
I’ll be honest. I was nervous about it. I was afraid that I would see my beloved cities and friends through different eyes. I couldn’t bear the thought of that, really. What if I didn’t feel connected to anything anymore? What if my friends had moved on without me? What if the US felt foreign and like a scratchy shirt, cut strangely, and two sizes too small?
The reality is, I did see everything through different eyes, but not in the way you might imagine. There was no rejection, only thankfulness and appreciation for my past. For my friends. For my family. For my life.
Maori have the concept of whakapapa (Fawkahpahpah), which is used to mean genealogy. What it literally means is layers stacked upon layers, with papa defined as anything flat and hard, like a stone, for instance. Imagine a building of long, stacked stones and that is whakapapa. Whakapapa is our foundations.
That got me thinking. What are my cornerstones? What are my capstones? Are my layers strong and supple? Can they withstand a good shake? As it turns out, they can. I joke that you can take the girl out of Georgia, but that you can never take the Georgia out of the girl. It’s not really a joke, though. It’s my whakapapa.
All of us have whakapapa. Some of us (like me, admittedly) spent a long time pushing it aside, trying to forget it, trying to find something that I perceived as better. There are a lot of reasons for that, many of which are valid. But the reality is, even if you believe that you can’t go home again, you can’t run away from yourself, either. Our layers run deep and long and they are more firmly entrenched than we could ever possibly imagine.
I left Georgia three weeks ago with the profound sense of knowing who I am—more than I knew myself before, I think. I left Georgia knowing that the people I count as my closest friends are my friends for a reason. Loyal, kind, and true. I left Georgia knowing that there is much to embrace about my family, even if there’s a lot to reject, too.
The experience that best sums this up, I think, was visiting my grandmother in her new retirement village patio home. She’ll be 92 in January. She’s much frailer than the last time I saw her, but she’s still spry and sharp and full of fire.
I spent the day with her, talking about family, friends, and other important things. As the day drew to a close, Grandma turned to me with a serious expression on her face. She leaned a bit closer and I could see her lips twitching, ready to tell me something important. I was ready. Waiting. I leaned in too.
“I don’t like the new girl who fixes my hair,” she said in a conspiratorial whisper.
“What?” I asked, blinking a bit, not sure if I’d heard her right.
“My hair. It’s all flat and lumpy. I can’t go out of the house with this flat and lumpy hair. She’s nice enough, but she’s young and she doesn’t know how it’s supposed to be fixed.”
With that, she pushed herself up from her chair and started shuffling towards her bathroom. “Come fix it for me, Sug,” she called out behind her, her Southern accent drawing out the diminutive of Sugar into an elongated, Shuuuhhhg.
Dutifully I got up and followed her. I found her waiting patiently in front of the bathroom mirror, teasing comb in hand. For the next five minutes, I backcombed, fluffed, and backcombed some more, her sharp gaze watching and making sure I was getting it right.
We chatted about silly things, like the time when I was seven and I convinced Grandma to have my hair cut short, only to be deeply hurt when the other kids in the neighbourhood thought I was a boy. We chatted about my mother and the crazy things they used to do ‘Way Back When’ to get curls in girls’ hair.
I reached for the industrial sized can of Aqua Net beside her on the counter and gave her a good spray. I refused to think about the environmental sins I had likely just committed.
“Better?” I asked her as she craned her neck this way and that, looking at her hair from all angles.
“Better,” she said as she shuffled out of the bathroom and back to her chair.
It was only later, while driving to Savannah that I thought about the significance of that very small moment. The rituals and history of families—even estranged ones, ones separated by thousands of miles—can never be completely undone. How, in that moment, I realized the breadth of my whakapapa and what it meant to have history.