February 13, 2017

A (not so) Long Way Home

I just finished reading Saroo Brierley’s memoir “A Long Way Home” on which the Oscar® nominated film Lion is based. It is the story of a young boy from a small village in India who falls asleep on a train and wakes up hundreds of miles from home with no idea where he is or how to get back to his family. This boy is adopted by an Australian couple and raised in Tasmania. Years later, as an adult, he uses Google Earth to retrace is childhood trek to find his village and is reunited with his family.

This story touched me because I remember when Google Earth came out. The internet was still very slow compared to today’s high-speed broadband. And I was living in California, almost the other side of the country from where I grew up. Like most people, the first thing I did on Google Earth was search my childhood home. I did this along with my coworkers who were mostly from big cities like New York or Philadelphia. They were astonished to see the green Tennessee forests and fields I grew up around compared to the grids of streets and buildings they searched. Some thought I was raised a country bumpkin after seeing the birds-eye-view of my hometown.

I think what captures us about this is seeing our childhood homes like we’ve never seen it before – from above. Saroo Brierley comments on this in his book. It was a remarkable tool to help him piece together his origins from his fragmented memories. But the only way to be certain was to see it from the ground.

“A Long Way Home” also reminded me of a not-so-long journey I took about a year ago. I was in my hometown on a warm spring weekend with nothing planned for the day. I was talking with my mother about how she grew up on a plantation farming community. I asked her when she last visited her childhood home and she said she hadn’t been there since she left as a pre-teen. I was astonished! Since we had no plans and it was a beautiful day, we got in the car and hit the road.

The plantation was just a short 15-20 minute drive away. We drove past the main plantation house, now a museum, and many farms that were now operated by a state university. Finally we came to a field with what seemed like a short driveway.

“The house was back there.” My mother pointed.

“Well, can we go there?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t think anyone would mind.” I pushed “You know the people around here. They wouldn’t care if we just looked around.”

So we parked the car and began walking. My mother had been to the area many times over the years. But this was the first time she actually returned to the fields she walked as a little girl. We walked along a fence line until we came upon some woods. My mother looked around a little lost. I fearlessly trudged into the trees and soon found some foundation stones and some old rusting appliances. This was it! We had found it! Like archaeologists in a South American jungle, we were rediscovering the past! Little was left that looked like it did in my mom’s youth. But she could still point to landmarks and in the general direction where she would walk to catch the school bus or see friends.

Several hours later, we returned home and immediately pulled out the photo albums to pour over the few photos my mom had of her childhood home. We compared them to the memories of the area we had just explored. It astounded me that my mother had never returned here until now. It was so close! Perhaps she didn’t want to return. Perhaps she had painful memories there. Or perhaps she thought there was no worth in returning to the past.

I, however, gained a greater understanding of my mother’s journey - where and how she grew up. Like Saroo Brierley’s journey, I was glad I made the trip.

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