"What do you think about Akron, Ohio?"
Chris directed his question away from the headhunter on the phone. I paused about two seconds before wrinkling my nose and shaking my head in disapproval.
Ten stories up into our skyscraper’s air, with the bustling downtown Chicago streets that bore and bred us beneath our feet, my future husband and I were desperate to move away from our psycho boss. But Akron sounded like an expanse of green more populated by cows than people.
"Let us show you around beautiful Fairlawn," promised a different raspy-voiced fellow on our answering machine.
I chuckled. How beautiful could it be?
Pretty beautiful, it turned out – especially once the hand attached to that voice pushed salaries that represented whopping raises across a conference room table.
In no time flat Chris and I packed our black Ford Explorer to the armrests and made the short trek across Interstate 80 eastbound toward our new lives. But four years into the deal, I couldn’t stand one more dull summer or snow-piled winter locked up in the Ohio Valley. My sights were set on a fresh bedazzling mistress of a state: California.
"There’s not one thing keeping me in this town!" I pointed with emphasis out the bay windows overlooking the greenery of our Copley backyard.
"I know," Chris acquiesced.
I bade "Slowhio" goodbye and reveled in the hills of our new stomping grounds, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. But like an illicit affair, my left coast dalliance didn’t last. The birth of my son and the instability of our economic future forced us to come-a-callin’ on our trusty old step-motherland once again.
"It looks frozen," I said, snuggling my 10-month-old and peering out the compact window of the plane as it neared the woods outside Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. There I was, a former corporate power player returning as a homemaker with her tail tucked firmly under her belly, grateful that our old corporate Papas welcomed my husband back with open arms.
But forging phase two of my stay proved more difficult, for most of my old friends were working women. One dreary Monday around the turn of spring, I pulled into the empty parking lot in front of Croghan Park and checked the readout: 47 degrees. Positively balmy in these parts. Where was everybody? I sat under the pyramid-topped play structure with my baby and stared off into the misty distance, feeling so alone.
Slumping back to my truck, I tracked down my old neighbor’s number. "Hello Pattie?" I stalled, holding back the tears. "What are you doing?"
"Making pancakes. Do you want to come over?"
The warmth of her country table reminded me of all the little things I missed about this quaint town – the way even normally sullen teenagers tossed me friendly hellos, quirky farm boys who hunted possum and called streams of water "cricks" instead of "creeks."
Since that day I’ve gained a growing family of friends – some Buckeye blue bloods through and through, others corporate nomads like me, counting on each other as emergency babysitters and holiday dinner companions. I counted on this crew recently to help celebrate my daughter’s 3-year-old birthday, so I sent hand-painted invitations to all seven families in the stable.
"I have to work that day," my blonde-and-crazy gal pal said when I tracked her down for an RSVP.
Six couples won’t be bad, I reasoned. But soon more cancellations poured in. "Nick spit out," my Ukrainian friend said, interpreting her son’s sudden sickness. The morning of the party, I retrieved an e-mail from a close friend I assumed would be there, like always. "I have to go out of town," it read. A fourth invitee never responded at all.
So much for my so-called family. The whole first hour of the event I peeked constantly at our empty driveway, the smell of 40 pieces of Rizzi’s fried chicken and lit maple candles permeating the house. Then came a blessed sight through our picture window – three families all toting gifts like modern-day magi.
After the shindig wound down I had the epiphany that my friends were exactly like family – with its changing members at times infuriating, but loving enough to bring food to my sickbed when I’ve needed them.
These folks are the grains of salt of the piece of earth I never want to leave again. Ever. My newfound loyalty hit home when pillow talk with my mate turned to things eternal.
"Where do you want to be buried?" Chris asked.
"I want my funeral at the House of the Lord," I said, envisioning the beacon off Interstate 77 that first cradled me. "And bury me in Akron – my new home."
Paula Mooney is a freelancer writer who lives in Akron with her husband and two young children. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This essay was originally published in the January 2006 issue of Akron Family and is available for reprints.