DISCOVERING MY HOMETOWN
by Mary Architzel Westbrook
photograph by Roberto Westbrook
Several summers ago, my brother-in-law brought his girlfriend home for a long weekend. As we sat together along Chic’s Beach, I was falling into that deep, salt-tinged stupor that enfolds you toward the end of a beach day when Rebecca pointed toward the bay and frowned. “It’s such a pretty view,” she said. “Too bad that ugly thing is spoiling it.” The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel isn’t a “thing,” we told her. It’s an engineering marvel. With a shrug, Rebecca returned to her magazine. Though I adored her, I felt indignant: What was she thinking? Who doesn’t admire the Bay Bridge-Tunnel?
Later, I was surprised by how much her offhand comment irked me. After all, since returning to Tidewater a couple years before I’d hardly been a cheerleader for the region. When friends from bigger cities came to visit, I’d drive them into downtown Norfolk reluctantly and sigh: “Don’t blink. You’ll miss it.” Or, as we inched along the bleakest stretch of Virginia Beach Boulevard, I’d grimace. “Terrible, isn’t it?”
For a long time, I was self-conscious about this area, though we started off on good terms. When my family arrived in Virginia Beach, I was 12 and fed up with moving; at Great Neck Middle School, I purposely befriended local kids, people who didn’t keep time by Navy deployments. After school, I’d sidle up to their kitchen counters and find myself in an alternate universe: grandparents who lived down the street, bedrooms inhabited since preschool, furniture custom-built for a specific space. Field hockey sticks in every garage. The place dazzled me.
The love affair eventually wore thin. By the time I graduated high school, I was itching to see the world, and so I did. After college, I landed a writing gig that sent me to Bogotá and Amsterdam. In my 20s, my husband, a photographer, and I spent nine months working in and traveling through South America. We made our way to the farthest end of the continent, Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, and explored icebergs and mountain trails. We hopscotched our way along small beach towns in Brazil, eating dinners freshly plucked from the ocean next to fishermen in pocket-sized family restaurants.
When I moved back to Tidewater after that adventure, this time to Norfolk, I pointed my nose skyward. The strip malls! The tunnels! The teeth-rattling jets overhead! They offended my newfound worldliness. I’d seen so much; what did this place have to offer?
Still, something about my attitude rang false, even then. If I disliked it, why had I come back? I was an unencumbered adult, capable of going almost any place else; yet there I was – complaining about things, poking fun.
The truth is that when I wasn’t moaning about what the area lacked, I was happy to be here. Other cities I’d visited were more glamorous, but they didn’t have my haunts: a decades-old diner at the Oceanfront, the winding paths in First Landing State Park (which, to me, will always be Seashore), the perfect picnic spot along the Chesapeake Bay. I found new favorites in Norfolk, hidden parks and cobblestoned streets, along with small businesses and shops, some of them owned by friends. That’s another thing about Tidewater: We may be a major metro area but we have a small-town feel – I rarely make it through the grocery store without running into someone I know. You can make a difference here. You can matter. There is a sexiness to traveling, jetting into a place, hanging around for a little bit, but a sweetness to coming home and rediscovering an area, loving it.
Over the course of two decades, I’ve felt both desperate to fit into Tidewater, and desperate to leave it – which according to most coming-of-age novels I’ve read and every Bruce Springsteen song ever written, is just about what a good hometown should be. Once I was ready to settle down, I was also ready to come home.
That day on Chic’s Beach made me realize, though, that having a hometown is like having a kid brother. He may bug you, but he’s your brother. No one else gets to say a word against him. I could make fun of empty downtown streets or gritty strip malls, but an outsider, even an outsider I loved, couldn’t call any part of my home ugly.
And, after all, the Bay Bridge-Tunnel, and the places it leads you to here, are beautiful. Last year, after a two-week summer vacation in the Northeast, my husband, 20-month-old son and I drove down the Eastern Shore, ready to be done with the long drive. When we finally caught sight of the white shoreline paralleling Shore Drive, I let go of a breath I didn’t know I was holding. It was like a cork bursting out of a Champagne bottle on New Year’s. We’re home now, we cheered, as our car rumbled over the bridge. We’re home.