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Chamblee: I can’t go home again. But I have returned. | COMMENTARY

“You can’t go home again.” Thomas Wolfe died before his words became famous. I wonder what he’d think about the number of times that phrase has been repeated, always with utmost sincerity.

In his book of that title, Wolfe created the character of George Webber, who walked with American readers through the best of times and the worst of times. The story began in the roaring 1920s, to the great stock market crash, through the Depression and during the rise of Nazis.

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Webber, a beginning author, writes a book that makes frequent references to his hometown. When the residents read the book and saw the truths Webber exposed, they begin to send Webber death threats and menacing letters expressing their discontent with his novel, even though it was held in high regard in the rest of the country.

Wolfe explores the themes of a changing America, including the economic crash amid the illusion of prosperity, war, injustice and intolerance, and the unfair passing of time. His hometown changes, and so does he; even when Webber returns, he can never go “home again.”

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It’s easy to replay this story today. Some of my friends are thriving, but for others, their houses are still underwater. Some lost their jobs. Some lost their parents and grandparents to a preventable disease. My own mom is older, my dad has passed and the house he built is occupied by another family; it’s no longer the newest, largest house on the block, not by a long shot. The new lots are treeless. The traffic is abominable.

Many of us are sheltering at home, with parents and children, wondering where our old friends went and what kind of people they became. We might be wondering what kind of people we have become, arguing with neighbors about what constitutes 6 feet and why masks need to be pulled over the nose or worn at all.

The field where I rode my horse is now a spot for luxury homes. Kendall’s Hardware is still here but in a larger space. Clyde’s of Columbia is not. The live music venue next door, The Soundry, that we thought would finally make us hip has already closed. Boarman’s Meat Market is still here. Dozens of restaurants, bars and ice cream shops were temporarily closed before my move in May, and many will never reopen.

The library is no longer new but still shiny. Sunflowers of Lisbon and Larriland Farm are still here, but Maple Lawn is mostly a neighborhood now. Stop signs in towns have been replaced by traffic circles and streaks of traffic lights, new housing developments and the accompanying traffic jams. Adele’s salon, where I got my hair done on my wedding day, has been replaced by a strip mall. I don’t know what happened to Mr. Kendall or to Adele.

When I moved from here, it was to get married to my new college boyfriend, a promising writer. I wanted to move toward a city, but I ended up following him further to Western Maryland. He still covered the Maryland Terrapins, and we were true Maryland fans. We were at the Orioles when they won the first and second games of the 1983 World Series in Memorial Stadium. That stadium is no longer and the Orioles haven’t won the World Series since. My husband loved covering the state, and I loved reading his stories about it.

Now, 34 years later, my marriage came to a violent end. My husband, John McNamara, is gone, murdered in a mass shooting with other colleagues at the Capital Gazette newsroom. After picking out his urn, listening to the murder video in the courtroom with his killer, selling my house, auctioning off decades of belongings and boxing up hundreds of memories, I am not the same. I have new friends; hundreds of people like me, walking wounded, oozing pain, mourning our daughters, sons, husbands and wives. When we speak out for gun safety, for suicide prevention, for procedures to remove guns from dangerous people, we, too, get death threats and menacing letters from people best described as Nazis.

I still didn’t move to The City. I have returned here, to the same ZIP code as my high school.

The world changed. My world has changed. I have changed. My country changed. Not even the stars here look the same.

I am not the same person. This is not the same place. I can’t go home again. But I have returned.

Andrea Chamblee is the widow of Capital Gazette reporter John McNamara, who was murdered on June 28, 2018, when five staff members were killed in a shooting. She is a co-author with him and David Elfin of “The Capital of Basketball.” She writes from the pastoral splendor that is the Howard and Carroll County line. Email her at achamblee@yahoo.com.

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