Oh, the Places I’ve Been

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Wendy Hodge

By WENDY HODGE

The first book I ever remember checking out of the city library was a children’s book of travel stories. It was a large book with a picture of the Taj Mahal on the cover. Every page was a splash of color from an exotic spot on the globe – the jungles of the Amazon with its dangerous creatures, the Great Wall of China snaking its way across the mountains of mystery and the Nile River with the pyramids and mummified pharaohs. I longed to see them all.

As children do, I tried to fit those images into my idea of the world, which didn’t go far past the city limits at that point. So I spent an entire summer assuming that to make my way to the top of Kilimanjaro, it would only take an adult willing to drive me and an afternoon with free time to do it … much like a trip to the A&P on a Saturday.

It wasn’t long before the public school system taught me just how wrong I was. But that did not cure me of my deep-rooted wanderlust. Because my brother lived in Virginia, our family did make the 500 plus mile drive once a year, usually at Thanksgiving, north to the mountains of the Blue Ridge. The back seat was mine alone, so I made a nest with my pillow and blanket and a stack of at least 10 books (because you never know when you’ll have a need for many literary choices).

There was also a memorable journey west to take my sister to college. The roads were covered with ice, and I swear we actually slid rather than drove the last hour or two right into the city of Searcy, Arkansas.

Over the years, our family vacations included a trip to Pennsylvania to see Amish country and Hershey (I can still close my eyes and imagine I am walking down the sidewalk in a city that smells like chocolate – can you imagine? An entire city that smells like a Hershey bar! Why on earth did we not move there?), a long weekend on St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia and our yearly summer vacation in the Smoky Mountains.

For a middle class family from Alabama, we took more than our share of trips. I believe this is in large part to my mother. As much as she loved making a home for us right there in our little spot on the globe, she was very much aware of just how big the world was and of how much more there was to see.

It was my sweet sister, though, who gave me my first taste of real travel. When I graduated from high school, she took me to Europe. The minute I boarded an airplane for the first time, I was hooked. We landed in London and left Heathrow Airport in a cab bound for the prettiest hotel I had ever seen. I had a room of my own facing the Thames with the iconic Tower Bridge directly in my view and the Tower of London a few steps away. Standing in front of my window with the curtain parted and this amazing city with its centuries of history stretched out before me, I felt it – that moment when a citizen of the world realizes just how far-flung the borders of their home truly are.

I’ve traveled to Europe more than once, and I’ve seen more of my own country from New York to the Florida coast. I know the city of Savannah almost as well as my own town, and Paris is where a part of my heart will always reside. I can say this much, with the most profound gratitude: Travel has left me speechless and then turned me into a storyteller.

I sit here today scrolling through pictures on Facebook. It seems everyone I know is on vacation. Many are at the beach, while a few are in the mountains. One family is in California, posting pictures of their group crowded into a convertible coasting down Route 66. One friend is in Greece, and the pictures prove that it actually is as breathtaking as I thought it would be.

For a moment, I am jealous. That familiar longing to be somewhere new, somewhere “other” is strong today. Just when I’m considering throwing myself a spectacular pity party, my daughter texts me a picture. It is a memory that has popped up on her Facebook, and it is a picture taken on a trip she and I took to Universal Studios in Florida three years ago. It is a close-up of her sweet face. She is tired, but she is smiling. Her eyes twinkle the way they do when she knows she is making me laugh. In her hands is a toy from a Burger King kids’ meal she’d bought on the trip down. I remember that moment vividly. We were in our room at the end of a long but fun day. She had picked up the toy from its spot on her pillow and sighed deeply.

“Thanks for this trip, Mom,” she said and reached out to hand me the toy. “Please take this as my token of appreciation.”

I looked down at the figurine of a female super hero.

“It’s Burrrrr-Girl … get it?”

A split second later, we were both laughing that deep, stomach-ache-inducing, tears rolling down your face kind of laugh. It was fueled by fatigue and a giddiness that being on vacation often brings. And it was one of the best laughs of my life.

I am not on vacation today. I am not in a new and exotic locale. I am not boarding an airplane or the newest roller coaster. My wanderlust is not being fed.

But…

I realize that I have been so many more amazing places than my passport will ever convey. I have been at dinner tables with dear friends who have known me my whole life. I’ve been to parties and late-night movies. I’ve been to midnight book releases for the latest “Harry Potter” installment at Books A Million, and I’ve been to yard sales all over Lee County. I’ve been in the grocery store when a young couple paid for the groceries of a stooped over old man who served in World War II. I was in line the other day at Hardees when someone paid for the orders of the five cars behind him, including mine.

I was there in the monkey park the day the Rocky Brook Rocket came home from California and made its first run, looking all new and shiny. I’ve been at the high school watching the Fourth of July fireworks year after year. I was driving through Opelika the day a bear was spotted roaming through local neighborhoods. And I was there the day the mill burned down and we lost a piece of our own history.

I was there the moment my son made me a mom for the first time, in a hospital bed in Maryland. And a few years later, I was in the hospital right down the road from my home when my sweet daughter arrived. I was in our front yard when my son took his first step. He walked toward me with his little arms out and his smile as big as the world, and I just knew he was the most amazing child ever. I was standing over my daughter’s crib when she spoke her first word, and it was confirmed that I just have world-class genius children. I was there, holding their hand or hugging them close, the day they got their heart broken or their dreams dashed. I was there, in the front row of every performance, when they sang and danced and acted their way to state championships. I was there when they left school and then when they left home. And I’m still here now, happy to be their mom.

I was there the day my sister got married, standing right next to her in the Tenth Street Church of Christ. I was there when both her sweet boys were born. And I was there the six days she lay in a coma following a car accident. On the seventh day, I was there to tell her goodbye.

And I am here, right in this room, with my best friend. He is my home now, and it turns out we are the biggest adventure of them all.

So, there will be bags to pack and tickets to buy and itineraries to plan. But for today, I am so aware of all that I have been privileged to witness. Oh, the places I’ve been…

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