Not so many years ago, I found myself checking into a hotel in Lebanon, Virginia in the late evening. Lebanon is not exactly a rural place, but it’s close enough. I was there for a funeral; this time, for an aunt. The trip was just the latest in a pretty somber string of such events, as my father’s once large family slowly shrank, succumbing to time and age. My role, as it had been more often than I liked to think about, was pallbearer, a role I had played with such frequency that I was no longer taken aback by the surprising heft of a coffin, even when toted by six or eight strong men.
As I filled out the registration card and pushed back across the counter, the clerk — a kindly woman about my mother’s age — looked it over, then reached out and rested her age-speckled hand across my forearm.
“Are you one of Maudie’s?”
Here’s what you need to understand. First, I had never laid eyes on the night clerk in my life. Second, while I am indeed one of Maudie’s — Maudie being my grandmother — I have never lived in Lebanon. Never lived anywhere near Lebanon. And finally, Maudie — God rest her soul — passed away long before this encounter.
But this woman at the night desk — this stranger — had noted my last name, sensed my muted grief , and instantly understood that I was connected to that place in some way, and that some small part of that connection had been severed. And she knew this in a way that surpassed even my own knowing.
“Yes,” I said. “Maudie was my grandmother. Aileen was my aunt.”
“Turrble,” she said, gliding over the embedded vowel. “So sad.” She extended my key — a solid brass affair on an oversized plastic fob — over the counter. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
This memory has been on my mind a lot lately and, believe it or not, it’s all because of Facebook.
It’s not so much that I feel a part of a similar community online. After all, while social media can do many things and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by many of them, it can’t replicate that tangible and generational connection that I experienced that night.
But I’ve had the good fortune to reconnect with a couple dozen friends from high school over the past few months (Portage High School, Class of 1975, if you really want to know) and from time to time, this same group of friends will post pictures of themselves together at a restaurant or some other venue not far from where we all grew up. Sometimes there will be three or four of them, sometimes more. Sometimes it’s all men, sometimes all women, sometimes families.
What strikes me about these photos is that these people — some of them my oldest friends — are all there. In that very same, very specific place. A place where they have grown up. Gotten married. Had kids. Lost jobs. Gotten other jobs. Enjoyed their grandkids. They are rooted there in a way that I sometimes believe that I — who have had more addresses than I can count, some of them on the other side of the globe — may never experience.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not bemoaning my fate. I’ve seen much of the world, and more importantly, I am blessed to have a wife who is my home, my community, my connection — no matter where I am.
But some day, a man or a woman far younger than I am will walk into an establishment somewhere in northern Indiana and maybe — just maybe — someone will look them over and ask them — are you one of Rich and Gail’s? Or Doris and Chuck’s? Or Tom and Marlene’s?
And they will know where they belong.