I went to a funeral last week. The funeral was for my husband’s uncle who died at 93 at the end of the long goodbye that is Alzheimer’s disease. The funeral was not sad as funerals go. John had lived a good, long, life. When, a year ago,  he lost his wife of countless years he lost his hold on life in many respects. The funeral celebrated his life as a son of Jasper County, a husband, a churchman, a father and a friend. It also celebrated his life as a veteran of World War II — he fought as a navy crewman in the Battle of Guadalcanal. The emotional climax of the funeral was when they handed the American flag to John’s son  while the old veteran off behind the crowd at the gravesite played taps.

What the minister at the funeral did brilliantly, however, was capture the hold that place held on John. In this case, the place was a farm in Jasper County that had been in his family for generations. John was raised on that plot of ground, but — like most in his generation — left the country for opportunity in the burgeoning cities of the South early in the 20th century. John found work, was called to service during the war, returned, married, got a job,  raised a family —  all the while never losing the sense of connectivity to the land in Jasper County that was his emotional center. When he retired, he and his wife moved back to Jasper County, to the family farm, built a house and lived there until the end of his life. Never did he feel more at peace than during those years when he returned to the land and landscape of his place in the world.

A sense of place is a powerful emotion. I was born and raised in Mobile, Alabama but only lived there really for 18 years. The vast majority of my life has been elsewhere and I am deeply rooted and centered here in the home that I have built with my husband. But what is the hold that the land, the horizon, the feel of the home place have over you when you have a connection to it? I doubt that I, like John, will return to live there, but I can say that I am drawn to the water, to places where the oak trees are draped with moss, to places where history resonates, where old houses are prized. I am drawn to lush and green landscapes, to a culture of kindness and hospitality. I am drawn to the sounds of jazz, and the tastes of fresh seafood a few hours, not days, from the Gulf. I resonate with the cadence of the soft dialects of the coastal regions. There is a quirky side to Mobile that appeals to me — a tolerance of eccentricity; a sense of celebration and play. All these things have an impact on who I am, who I became; what I am drawn to and what I value.

For me, I return to that place often. The drive from Atlanta to Mobile is mostly interstate and pine trees until you get about thirty miles outside Mobile and begin to see the rivers and bridges and the changes in the landscape that mean you are close. The sense of place begins to overtake me, and I know I am almost home.

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Martha W. Fagan

Martha W. Fagan

The senior director of the alumni association of Emory University in Atlanta, Martha W. Fagan has more than 30 years experience in alumni relations, development and career advisement.