“Unless you were born here, you will never really be at home in this city.” Amy and I heard those words (or a variation thereof) over and over again in early 1996, as we met new people in our adopted hometown of Rockford, Illinois. We continued to hear them occasionally through the years; the last time I recall someone saying them in my presence was only a few months before we left Rockford for good. They were frequently uttered with a sense of frustration by people who, like us, had been born and raised elsewhere; but we heard them surprisingly often, too, from those who had always called Rockford their home.
You might suppose that, in the case of the natives, the words were a warning, an acknowledgement of an insularity peculiar to this midsized town in the middle of the Midwest—or perhaps one shared by similarly sized cities out here in flyover country. Yet they were more often than not tinged with a touch of sadness, a sense that the natives themselves no longer truly felt at home—and if they couldn’t, how could we?
Still, we decided that we at least had to try. After all, we never intended to leave Rockford; all of our future children would be born there, and our eldest daughter was only seven months old when we arrived. Trying, we hoped, would ensure that they would be natives, even if we could never be.
And somewhere along the line, we found...