There is nothing quite like the feeling you get when you are headed back to your hometown. There are memories (some fond, some not-so-much), trepidation, and hopefully, eagerness to reconnect with old friends and family. All of this is on my mind as I head out of Charlottesville and point my car in the direction of my birth place and home until I was a 17 years old: Dover, Delaware.
But first, I have a few old haunts here to re-explore. Charlottesville brings back memories of coming here with my family when I was about six years old, as well as the time I returned for a high school friend’s wedding. All of this took place around the beautiful, rolling hills that surround Charlottesville, Virginia. Not only my memories live here, but centuries of American history.
I leave the Clarion motel after grabbing a quick cup of coffee and a mini-muffin from the breakfast buffet, and head up to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, his family, and hundreds of slaves who had no choice to live here. I am hoping I can do a quick visit of the house, an architectural gem, before heading home, but the weather is turning foul and it turns out the timed tours take a minimum of an hour and a half. So, I park my car in the lot and make due with a tour of the gift shop instead. I can’t even get close to the house, so I buy some jam as a gift for my mother, and head out again.
I’ve arranged to stop in Annapolis, Maryland on my way to Dover to meet up with a friend for lunch. Annapolis is only about an hour or so away from my final destination, so it is a perfect place to rest and gather my spirits.
The drive around the Washington beltway is fraught with traffic and east coast anxiety. For the first time in a long time, I am caught in the typical mayhem of an eastern seaboard city. Cars and trucks slow to a crawl as a couple of large, black SUV’s with lights pass us in the breakdown lane. I wonder which politician is in the car and headed to what pressing luncheon they are late for.
Eventually, I am released from the early Friday afternoon rush home and pull off the highway into Annapolis. This quaint colonial town is the home of the Naval Academy, and cadets (or is it seaman?) are wandering the streets in their uniforms. I park my car in the city lot and my friend, Erica, knocks on my car window. She just arrived as well and spotted my dusty car as I pulled in.
It is a pleasure to see a friendly face after days on the road without a familiar face for thousands of miles. For the first time in two months, I realize that I am “home.” Back on the east coast and only a few hours away from my true house in Boston, but really back in familiar territory where I don’t need to rely upon GPS for directions.
We walk along the brick and cobbled streets to the water front and settle into a cozy pub serving the requisite crab cakes. I haven’t had a decent crab cake since my last trip to Delaware back in June, so I can’t wait. We settle into a table and Erica orders us a crab dip just to get us started, followed by the cakes, washed down with a Dogfishhead IPA. Ah, yes! Back home, indeed.
We catch up on the latest news and gossip and I tell Erica some of my trips highlights, but we only have a limited amount of time since she has to go to work and I have to hustle down the road before the freezing rain makes travel impossible.
On our way back to our cars, we stop into the Annapolis City Market for some delicious gelato and a cup of espresso. The sugar and caffeine fuel me for the final leg of the trip to Dover and it gives us a few more minutes of time to chat before parting.
Back on the road, I cross the Bay Bridge over the Chesapeake Bay and into the rural landscape of Maryland and Delaware. I pass thru towns so familiar to me: Goldsboro, Sandtown, Woodside. Small towns of a few farm families, and perhaps a church or post office, maybe a tavern. The flat terrain made for easy harvests of corn, soy, wheat. Additionally, chicken farms with long, low barns fuel the economy here in the Delmarva peninsula.
I also reflect upon how I am essentially traversing the Mason-Dixon line. Maryland and Delaware were border states during the Civil War, with many southern, slave-owning farmers siding with the confederacy, while the more industry-heavy northern counties sided with the Union. Families were indeed torn apart here and it is reflected in town’s names such as Union Corner.
The rain is just starting to fall as the grey sky gets darker and I exit the country roads and rejoin the bustle of Rt. 13, passing newly built big box stores and even a Waffle House. My childhood home has expanded and grown as newly minted retirees from Pennsylvania and New Jersey move to Delaware to stretch their dollars even further. Delaware is notorious for not having any corporate, sales or state income tax. It’s the reason why Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen established his bogus, mistress-pay-off corporation here. Ah, yes, so proud….
A quick right off of Rt. 13 and onto 10, and soon, I am pulling into my mother’s driveway. Her functional, ranch has it’s lights on and I know she is waiting for me inside with both hugs and questions about my trip and my life in general. I take a deep breath in and prepare myself for re-joining the family fold for a few days. It can be both sweet and challenging. I’ll need strength to keep from saying anything too harsh when politics come up and patience when asked about my future and finances. One more deep breath and in I go.
The next day, I visit other relatives but before I do, I have some time to drive around Dover and reacquaint myself with my old hometown. I pass my old elementary school, now rebuilt, the church where I was baptized, also rebuilt, and the hospital where I was born. And yes, that too has been added on and rebuilt. I start to wonder if I shouldn’t be rebuilt myself.
Driving down Lockerman Street, the former and now struggling hub of our commercial district, I recognize other places from my past now boarded up and vacant. As with most main streets in America, Lockerman fell into disrepair when the malls moved in along the highway, but today, a few new businesses are trying to rebuild. In it’s glory, Lockerman was a Victorian era beauty with fancy brick-worked buildings and ornate shop windows. The Capital Movie theater, where I watched Bela Lugosi movies as a kid for a quarter is only open for special occasions now. It’s art deco luster re-polished, but with streaming services the norm, no one comes out enough to make it successful. We really have lost so much of our community’s heart and soul over the past few decades. I secretly wish we one day wake up and walk away from our computer screens and back to the streets where we encounter each other face to face, but as I write this on my computer, I see realize the irony of such a statement.
I make a left onto South New Street and head towards my favorite landmark and still the center of the community: Spence’s Bazaar. Here, while some may walk around with cell phones in their hands, there is still actual interaction between actual people. This place has been here since 1933 and has housed farmer’s markets, antique stalls, junk shops, live auctions, and a thriving Amish market. My favorite thing is to wander the musky stalls, listen to the the lilting drone of the auctioneer, watch people from all socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds, and eat the most delicious soft pretzels in the world with a side of honey mustard while downing a homemade root beer from the Amish girls at the market. This is one of my happy places and I am so thankful it has survived. Not even an arson fire in 2000 could steal this place away. The farm family who has owned it for over 85 years wouldn’t let that happen and I am so grateful. And if you have ever been here, you will surely feel the same way.
These institutions are becoming rarer and rarer. A third place where you can leave behind your family and work woes and find your friends at the 1950’s formica tables and share a pretzel or a hot pork sandwich. It is warm, authentic, and always eager to welcome you in. Go. Sit at one of the tables and open your ears and eyes to what is authentic Delaware. Do it soon though, because while it still stands, you never know what might happen in the future. It has survived this long, but nothing is guaranteed. Developers are thirsting for the land and soon it could become a Lowes or CVS. I hope not. We need Spence’s. We need community. Now, put your phone down or walk away from your computer and find that place in your community that is authentic, welcoming and loved, and cherish it before it disappears.