It will always be home to me

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 3, 2006

Last weekend I returned to my hometown of Ironton, Ohio, for my youngest sister’s high school graduation.

The house I grew up in, on the fringes of Wayne National Forest outside of town, feels a little smaller every time I go back and there is always some new change my mom has made.

I lived in that house for about 20 years, seeing as how I lived at home my first two years of college. At one time all seven of us were stuffed into the three-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath rancher.

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It didn’t have any more land than what it sat on, but one could slip into the trees beyond our backyard and hike forever through Wayne National Forest. My brothers, Greg and Ben, managed to wear trails out through there, hacking new ones where they pleased.

They chose a spot atop a hill and dug a large hole with some friends, then gathered scraps of wood and metal to build what was, for their age and skill, quite an impressive fort.

About the time they grew too old to enjoy the wooded wonderland they helped create, my sister Stephanie and I were old enough to go out there alone, running around or riding our bikes. We kept the trails clear, raking the leaves in the fall and pulling up overgrowth in early summer.

We maintained the fort as best we could, too. I don’t know if my brothers had given it a name, but we dubbed it The Boys’ Hole. Being girls, we added flowers and old seat cushions and tried to sweep the (dirt!) floor regularly to make it more of a house than a fort.

One time we tried to dig a second hole next to it just deep enough to stick our feet in. We hauled bucket after bucket from the water hose behind our house, trying to fill that hole so we’d have a wading pool. But we’d always return to find the water had soaked into the ground.

Often we would pick blackberries n buckets of them so my mom could make cobblers. We didn’t even like the taste or texture of the berries, or the cobblers for that matter, just the fact that we found enough to actually make something. The cobblers usually went to the neighbors.

At some point we came across large stones cut in the hillside. It was a curious configuration to us. The moss-covered rocks climbed up the hill like a set of steps. I don’t recall how we discovered them, but we dubbed them the Wet Rocks because every now and then there would be a thin trickle of water running down them.

Instead of hiking directly up the hill, we would take the Wet Rocks. It was a more adventurous route, we thought. Once we reached the top of the hill, we made a stop to see a tree, the main trunk of which reached straight up to the sky.

But it appeared a second one grew out from about five inches above the bottom, went sideways a foot or two, then curved and went skyward. It made a perfect bench.

There were some gnarled vines hanging from two or three trees that were perfect for swinging on. One we could take and swing out over the hillside; the other hung over a creek. Although the creek was shallow, we had to be daring to swing on it for fear we’d fall off and get our sneakers soggy. That could ruin a day’s play.

In our minds, that particular area just beyond the back yard was our personal forest. We called it The Woods. If we went too far to the top of the main hill, we would find ourselves on horse trails into Wayne National Forest n too far to go without a parent.

If we went too far back, we would cross onto a former coal mine site. Bits of coal still covered the hillside, and a huge opening to an old mine loomed in the side of the hill. By that time, it was no longer in use and large metal bars covered the entrance.

We were small enough to fit through the bars, and we did a time or two, feeling the cool air coming from within. But we never went farther than a couple of feet n too afraid to wander into the blackness. I’m sure we were warned about the place falling in on us.

I don’t know how many hours we spent running around The Woods, but it seems like that’s where most of my childhood took place. The youngest in the family, Melissa, was too small to run around with us, and didn’t spend much time there when she was old enough to go because she had no one to share it with. By that time, Stephanie and I had outgrown it.

Now the entrance to The Woods is overgrown. It’s been overgrown for a few years now. But that never concerned me, because I figured if Greg could hack new trails through it, we could certainly cut through some bushes to find our old ones buried beneath, if, and when, we wanted.

I always assumed that my nephews and nieces n even my own children if I have them n would run through The Woods just as we had.

But that probably won’t happen. Last summer my dad was transferred to Cincinnati, and since Melissa graduated, she’ll move on to college and my mom will join my dad in the city.

They are selling our home and moving nearly three hours away. Certainly, they deserve a big, new house that isn’t worn by time and kids and animals. I worry that it will have a sterile feeling, though. A place that’s strange and never quite feels like home.

Even though I haven’t officially lived in our house in nearly five years, the thought of never going back makes me feel homeless. Whenever I would tell someone I was going home, I meant to that cramped little rancher in Ironton.

Once that house is gone, I’m not sure what going home will mean.