As I have started re-writing Sabra the Astonishing AGAIN, I’ve come to realize why, after thirty five years, I can’t seem to let it go: with the exception of a few short stories, it is the only piece of my oeuvre set in the part of North Carolina I consider home – the rolling hills of the Piedmont. My heart may belong to the Great Smoky Mountains where I spent my summers between the ages of fourteen and twenty one, but the little university town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina remains my home town – a home town to which I am now connected by the slenderest of threads: my ninety-two year old father’s life. When he goes, I will no longer have a reason to visit Chapel Hill and so, in all probability, won’t. I won’t drive past our old house on Tenney Circle to see what they’ve done to it. I won’t stroll around the campus where I went to university. I won’t walk uptown to see a movie at the Varsity or have a Chef’s salad at the Carolina Coffee Shop. Heck! the last time I visited the church where I had my first communion, I found it burnt to the ground. All that remained were blackened Gothic arches; it looked for all the world like the ruins of some ransacked medieval abbey. As for the friends I only saw because their parents lived in the same assisted living facility as my parents, the only place I’ll see them going forward is on Facebook. Chapel Hill will be over. Done. One more chapter closed in a book that is, itself, drawing to a close.
Thomas Wolfe was one of U.N.C.’s most distinguished alumni and, like my parents, a Carolina Playmaker, His debut novel, Look Homeward, Angel, has been viewed as a towering masterpiece. You Can’t Go Home Again, his second and last novel, published posthumously, was not so well regarded. It is founded,however, on an essential and melancholy truth – once you leave, really leave, there is no going back.
I’ve lived in Canada for nearly thirty consecutive years, thirty four if you count the years I spent in graduate school at the University of Toronto. Three years ago my husband and I found a community that feels right to us – Port Stanley, a little fishing village on the northern shore of Lake Erie. We have a ravine out back and a lake view when the leaves are down. It’s beautiful here in its own Northern way, which makes it easier to take the fact that Chapel Hill, known (and rightfully so) as the Southern Part of Heaven, is slipping away from me, that it will belong, all too soon and all too irrevocably, to my past.
And so I rewrite Sabra the Astonishing, trying to conjure up and capture what home was like when it was home, when the journey had not yet begun that, so many years later, would see me deposited on the shore of a sweet water sea, a woman going on old in a country not my own. I go back home again, but in my mind, only in my mind. Because that is the only place it still exists.