Hometown was the central character in the theatrical version of my father’s life. At 74 he took his life, directly because of an untreated mental illness, but indirectly as the result of never having been able to stay rooted to a hometown of his own. It is a complicated story, parts of which I learned more about as my older sister and I picked through the decades-stashed artifacts of his childhood. There were so many, each painstakingly cataloged and stored in his grandmother’s late-19th-century northern Maine farmhouse.

The bandstand on the Town Common in Needham, Mass., where Karen Hand Ogg grew up. “My baby boom community held a sense of safety that I naively never understood until I left,” she writes. Archives Collection of the Needham Free Public Library

My dad stayed deeply connected to that Ludlow homestead, its place and people, located just over the Houlton line. It was there he spent parts of every summer for his entire life. It was the place that he refurbished with his siblings while also maintaining our family home and his career 368 miles south, in my hometown. It was there where he retired with my mom, cared for their elder family members, and there that he died.

My father’s hometown longing became a part of me. His unceasing drive to give me and my older sister what he did not have is a longer chapter. The short version: I was able to spend 18 of my formative years in Needham, Massachusetts, a then-modest town replete with steepled churches, a synagogue, a YMCA and a wonderful library that enthralled me. There were yearly carnivals and unmatchable Fourth of July events. Sadly, most of the modest houses have been gobbled up and reconfigured into structures I do not recognize. My hometown has metamorphosed into an embarrassingly fancy place, and there are signs that the same is happening in the southern Maine hometown that I gave my now-grown children.

Though the hometown of my childhood no longer exists, a mental map is preserved in me. I traversed it by foot, bicycle and car in every direction from our cookie-cutter Cape Cod house. I can still see the scenery of my youth – the details of my walk to Mr. Hallean’s corner store as a little kid, parts of that magical 12-mile bike ride with my then-teenage sister and the “shortcut” excursions that my still-best friends and I took to the center of town from the Heights, via the forbidden railroad tracks. These images remain, along with the thrills I experienced exploring every corner of my hometown from the driver’s seat when I no longer had to hitch rides with parents and friends. My baby boom community held a sense of safety that I naively never understood until I left. I thought the whole world existed similar to mine.

What we choose to hide from or define ourselves by is so often generated by our hometown experience. The quintessential “Our Town” and the eternal Dorothy syndrome reflect the origin of what we run from or work toward. Hometown is the beginning of our childhood stories of dysfunction and joy. It is the predominant setting of our infinite internal monologues.

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