Bildungsroman got my tongue: longing for home
“Nevertheless I long—I pine, all my days—to travel home and see the dawn of my return.” – The Odyssey
There is a literary genre called the “Bildungsroman,” literally “a picture story.” It’s a trope that appears everywhere.
The idea is that the hero, usually a naïve young man, leaves his ancestral village and goes out into the world to seek his fortune, fight a battle or slay a few dragons.
He sails to exotic lands to obtain The Ring, retrieve The Golden Fleece, rescue Helen of Troy, bring back the Holy Grail, save the maiden and marry her; or in Odysseus’ case, strives to stop sailing around the blasted Mediterranean Sea with all its distractions of tempting sirens, alluring goddesses, one-eyed monsters and endless battles: his struggle is to just get home.
I have a soft spot for Odysseus. I have a notoriously bad sense of direction, and I can easily see myself just floating around aimlessly, lost at sea for years on end.
In this type of story, after the hero has all these experiences, which are at turns dangerous, hilarious, mystical, inspiring or just bizarre, eventually he finds his way home again.
He returns to his village older, grayer, wiser, more subdued and very changed. Fighting off dragons and melting down Nazis is hard work, but inevitably the hero prevails.
He is no longer a boy, but a man, tested and tried in battle, whether figurative or literal. His quest completed, he returns home and tries to reintegrate into a place that has of course changed while he was away.
I am not sure I slew any dragons or recaptured any sacred vessels, but I do remember a single moment when the urge to come home crystallized for me.
I was in Charlotte, North Carolina, working for one of the banks. September 11, 2001 had just happened, and people were still trying to recover from the shock. I found myself outside chatting with a female colleague I knew from our break times.
I had been telling her about the weekend I’d just spent back home: there was a class reunion, the St. Joe/Hammonton Thanksgiving Day Football game, and also a family wedding in North Jersey.
For some reason, a friend’s name came up in the stories I was relating. I really can’t remember how she got into my narrative, but in trying to explain to my North Carolina colleague who she was to me, I realized that I had never noticed just how thick and intertwined the town network can be.
Each time I would try to explain who Carmella was, I would add, “But she and I are not related.”
“Carmella and I share an aunt: my mother’s sister was married to the brother of Carmella’s father—but she and I are not related…”
“This means we both have the same cousins, Marie’s two children—but Carmella and I are not related.” “Oh, and one of her brothers-in-law was my neighbor and my really good buddy—but we’re not related.”
“She’s now my neighbor and parents’ neighbor, but we’re not related.”
“Her father was brother to my aunt’s husband, but—”
“Yes, I know: but you and she are not related!”
I continued, “My parents knew her mom and dad since they were all kids; she’s a member of our parish, she works at my old school, and I was at her wedding because she married our neighbor, the brother of my best friend.”
As I continued with the explanation of all the connections, the other woman nodded sagely:
“I’m from the mountains, a very small town up there,” she said. “I don’t find any of this strange at all. I know exactly what you’re talking about.”
“I just counted at least 10 different connections I have with this person, and yet, we’re not related to one another. We’re just..”
As I trailed off, lost for words, one of the biggest personal epiphanies about my hometown hit me like a baseball bat thwacking me smack dab right between the eyes.
I looked at my colleague and blurted: “I have to go home!”
“Are you OK? Are you sick?”
“No, no, I’m fine—but I have to go home. Not home to my house in Charlotte, but home! I mean, my town! Charlotte is nice and North Carolina is great, but I have to go !”
One of the features of the Bildungsroman is that the hero learns valuable lessons in the time away from his village. He then returns older, wiser, seasoned.
I’m not sure if I gained any special wisdom in those years, but I did come to understand a couple of things.
For all its flaws and its gossip and its unrelentingly busybody nature—traits shared by all small towns everywhere—Hammonton is a special place, and those of us lucky enough to have been raised here have something that is impossible to replicate anywhere else.
That “something” has features closer to a very large, sometimes ornery, occasionally feuding family—but that’s how families are. Everywhere. It’s an intricate web of familial and almost-familial relationships. I am still amazed at finding out that I share cousins with people I went to school with, but never knew that they were related to my relatives.
You can travel the world, live abroad, go to any number of countries and cities, and you will not find what you have here.
Oh—there is one other thing I learned in my 25-year odyssey:
If it doesn’t hurt you or anyone else, do as you please.
Wear the things. Make the changes. Love whom you love. Have the career and relationships that suit you, and don’t worry overmuch about what is considered “normal,” because everyone else is not as cookie cutter as you may assume, first of all, and second of all, it’s none of their business anyway.
Worship, love and handle your life and career as your conscience dictates without worrying about “what will people think.”
I will tell you exactly what they will think:
When you and I die, the people we know will stop and perhaps feel sorrowful for a few seconds; they might say a few words that begin with “He/she was always… Gee, so young. What a shame,” and in less than two minutes, their minds and concerns will be somewhere else.
They will not ponder, contemplate and grieve for much longer than that unless they knew you exceedingly well. And if they did know you that well, they will understand why you made the choices you made and love you anyway.
Life is too short to live according to the perceived expectations of others, because when all is said and done, whatever you are doing, provided you do not harm yourself or anyone else, really is up to you.
Harm none, but live victoriously. Satisfy your heart’s desires.
The world will make a few disparaging comments, shrug its shoulders and then it will adjust, as it always has. So, carpe diem.
And cherish our hometown, because there really is nothing else anywhere quite like Hammonton.
Cherie Calletta was born and raised in Hammonton. She graduated Saint Joseph high school in 1977, then graduated from Rutgers College in New Brunswick and went to Japan for four years to teach English as a foreign language. She later spent about five years in Germany outside of Frankfurt am Main. After several years in Charlotte, North Carolina, she returned to Hammonton in 2002, where she and her husband make their home.