I was born and reared in a small Michigan town known as the home of both Gen. George Armstrong Custer and the La-Z-Boy chair company, an accident of local history most people in town do not find strange. The juxtaposition of the annihilation of Custer’s forces at the Battle of Little Big Horn with the comfort of a recliner does not occur to people. After all, the best way to watch a good old Western shoot-’em-up is in a La-Z-Boy.
These thoughts, among others, occurred to me as I left my hometown for even flatter pastures in Ohio where generations of my family lived. I wondered about the role of place in my life and in the lives of others.
I had a sense of coming home even though I was leaving the only one I had ever known. Perplexed, I recalled a passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter that struck me the first time I read it in Professor Dillon’s English class in community college. Hawthorne wrote in The Custom-House, his introduction to the novel, about returning to his hometown of Salem, Massachusetts:
This old town of Salem—my native place, though I have dwelt much away from it, both in boyhood and maturer years—possesses, or did possess, a hold on my affections, the force of which I have never realized during my seasons of actual residence here.
Hawthorne speaks to a universal truth...