For at least a decade now, whenever my best friend and I have had to drive from our current homes in Chicago back into Northwest Indiana where we grew up, for weddings or baby showers or, alas, now also funerals, we have a little running joke about it.
We’ll look around at the scenery, usually while we’re tooling down the same roads where we practiced first learning how to drive as teenagers. And we’ll say to each other:
WE’LL NEVER NOT BE FROM HERE. No matter what happens and where else we may go in life, we’ll ALWAYS be from here. If anyone ever asks us, “where are you from?” we’ll ALWAYS have to say Dyer, Indiana.
For some reason, the absolute permanence and finality of that fact always strikes us as hilarious. There are so many ways that we have the power to change and rearrange our lives, but the sheer, literal unavoidability of our origins can never be altered. The nearly cosmic absurdity of it just hits us square in the funny bone.
“It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home,” muses Pip in Great Expectations, and, well, not for nothing is it my all-time favorite novel. Though I probably never would have come straight out and said I was ashamed of being from Northwest Indiana, on many occasions have I sniffed something to the effect that it “just wasn’t the place for me.”
And, it isn’t. Or wasn’t. Or.
Suddenly, though, I find myself more simply interested in Northwest Indiana. In the fact of it. In its more elusive, underlying, animating spirit. I guess it’s a similar impulse to when folks get the genealogy bug and start tracing their way through the generations of their family tree. But for me it feels less like I want to specifically reclaim my own Hoosier identity and more like I’m interested in reappreciating the genuine pockets of the place’s uniqueness and specificity that people who grew up in other parts of the country or world would never otherwise know about. A more nuanced take on those clickbaity “You Know You’re From the Region If…” listicles, so to speak.
Part of this, I’m sure, stems from the fact that I’ve been in a relationship for the past six years with someone who was born and raised in Connecticut. In addition to all the other things about him that totally fascinate me, I find his essential East Coastness endlessly intriguing. (My standard line about this is always that I never really got Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground until I met him. Now I get it.)
I delight in hearing my boyfriend tell stories about his childhood in Waterbury. I see and appreciate more deeply certain facets of his personality that only come to the fore whenever we travel there to visit his family. Just the landscape alone tells me so much about his psychology. And that’s not even factoring in seemingly minor but actually super meaningful stuff like what local grocery chains his family shopped at, what TV stations they watched, and whether the elementary schools he and his sister went to stopped at fifth or sixth grade.
And, much like the American who realizes that she too speaks accented English when she hears a Brit or an Australian parrot her own voice back to her, I began to realize that, of course, my place of birth has stories and history that inform the way that I understand and carry myself in the world too.
Like, just off the top of my head, lemon rice soup.
The constellation of context and meaning surrounding this simple side dish is actually so complicated that I’ve been idly doing research on all the contributing factors that make it such a uniquely Northwest Indiana thing. I mean, I’ve been looking up the patterns of immigration of Greek families to the Chicago area, how and why that community found such success as restaurateurs, and what confluence of factors led to avgolemono becoming a staple of those restaurants’ menus. All these details must then also be funneled through a more personal recollection of why everyone I know from my childhood and teen years is obsessed with the stuff. And how it’s now just as much a part of our identities as it assuredly was for the Greek families who most likely nicked their Yia-Yia’s special recipe in order to cook up thick, steamy vats of it to serve their patrons by the bowlful.
Earlier this summer, my boyfriend and I drove from Chicago to Valparaiso, Indiana, to hear Roger McGuinn play a solo concert at the Memorial Opera House. We had just enough time before the show to grab a quick bite to eat at a restaurant nearby. Overjoyed to see lemon rice soup on the menu, I greedily ordered a bowl and insisted on posting a photo of it on Facebook. “Introducing Brian to the ancestral dish of my homeland,” I captioned the shot, and my friends lost their minds. A flurry of comments and reminiscences began unspooling under the photo, and I felt the profundity of that shared point of reference in a way that I don’t think I ever had before. I mean, I’m Polish, I’m nowhere close to being Greek; but it really kind of is the ancestral dish of my homeland.
I’d wanted to share the specificity of that with my boyfriend, to show him this strange, tiny part of my heart, but in a lot of ways it was more about me finally recognizing the significance of that collective memory for myself.
Growing up, I’d often bemoaned the Nowheresville quality of my hometown. I used to think that if I were from elsewhere in Indiana, I’d at least be able to claim a certain sort of aw-shucks Heartland corn-fed wholesomeness that people would understand. Or that, obviously, if I’d grown up in Chicago—rather than an hour outside the city on the wrong side of the state line—every new person I met would have an easy, instant shorthand for the overall essence of where I was from. “The Region,” as it’s colloquially known, always just seemed to me like an unfortunate armpit part of the state that had no true identity.
But in the grand tradition of James Joyce writing about Dublin while living far, far away in Europe, I suppose I’m becoming a similar sort of more local ex-pat who can finally wrap her head around her place of origin now that she’s no longer living there. The absolute permanence and finality of having grown up in Dyer, Indiana, turns out to be a lot less permanent and final than I’d once thought. Just as new roads get bulldozed through farm fields and seemingly indestructible structures like the high school I graduated from get torn down and completely rebuilt, even if the facts of my past won’t change, my understanding of them most certainly can, and will.