October is homecoming season — that annual tradition of returning to alma maters, of football games and parades and dances. If you’re lucky enough to have teenage girls, it involves the annual pursuit of the perfect homecoming dress.
It was two years ago that I went back for homecoming at my alma mater, Idaho State University. I flew in to my hometown, Pocatello, from Salt Lake City on a little 30-seat plane that tossed along the Pocatello wind to a landing. Sometimes getting home is bumpy.
There waiting to pick me up was my oldest brother Michael. Lanky, dapper, smiling, Michael’s look told me that he was happy to see me and that I was still his punk kid sister. I loved walking into his hug.
On the ride home, Michael told me that Babe, our father’s old, loving Labrador mix, was suffering badly from advanced age and arthritis. Michael knew he would have to put her down soon. We had just lost our father a little over a year before and losing Babe just seemed … unfair. He dropped me at our mother’s house, the home where I was raised.
Ironically, when I return home in my dreams, I’m always at my grandmother’s house. As a child, I spent plenty of time in my grandmother’s small, white clapboard home. But I never lived with her, and I rarely spent the night at her house.
Yet I built powerful memories at my grandmother’s knee … powerful enough that the echoes of her parlor and kitchen and her front porch imprinted on my dream world as home.
I guess home isn’t always where you expect it to be.
That year my brother Kim and sister Deborah also came back for the homecoming activities. My siblings and I donned our orange and black ISU colors with the rest of Pocatello and tailgated with friends. We caught part of the football game and hung out with Michael and his wife at their favorite bar.
We rose early on Saturday to snag a spot in front of the bar to watch the homecoming parade. The bar opens the morning of parade day to sell hot chocolate and bloody marys to the spectators. I saw so many old classmates on the sidewalk, it was almost like a mini high school reunion.
The parade was long and boisterous. In true Pocatello style, some of the float riders didn’t so much gently toss candy and toys to the crowd as they did slyly aim them at their heads. A Nerf ball that looked the size of television was coming in hot, and Michael casually grabbed it out of the air before it nailed me. At some point, I leaned in close to him for warmth and to just soak in the moment.
The word “alma mater” roughly translates to “nourishing mother.” And I think, at its heart, homecoming is really about returning to that nourishment. It’s a chance to replenish at your source with the people who share your experiences.
I had been back in Olympia about a week when Michael texted me that he had taken Babe to be put to sleep. That night I didn’t dream of my grandmother’s house. I dreamed I was standing on a riverbank watching my father at the water’s edge, his fishing pole in hand. Babe was running free and fast around him. My father turned and smiled broadly up at me, and I woke up.
It was about a week after that when I got the call that Michael had slipped away in his sleep. I don’t have the words for that one.
Last year, my remaining siblings all went back for homecoming. I couldn’t do it. I knew Michael wouldn’t be able to pick me up at the airport.
This October I am returning to Idaho for homecoming. I’ll catch the football game, and on Saturday, I’ll put on my favorite orange sweatshirt and watch the parade at the bar with a hot chocolate in hand … maybe even a bloody mary. I’ll dodge flying objects from fancy floats and maybe catch up with an old classmate or two. I’ll sleep in my childhood house and replenish at my source.
I’ll go home. And I hope it feels like I never left.
Kellie Purce Braseth is strategic communications director at the city of Olympia and a member of The Olympian’s 2015 Board of Contributors. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.