Hometown Turtle By Jessica North Macie
Adult Essay Honorable Mention Winner, Washington, D.C.
A lush pile of rich brown curls seduced me. They were perched atop a head seated in front of me as I, a 4-year-old, sat in the audience of my first ballet. I couldn’t help but reach out and tangle my fingers in the soft mass. I squeezed. The head screeched; it turned out it was attached to a startled boy. The boy had a mother who was equally horrified at my innocent instinct to grab her son’s head. She turned her judgment towards my mother, who was similarly stunned. Suddenly their expressions crinkled in laughter together. They recognized each other. They brushed off my odd behavior and took to chatting away. Faux pas forgotten.
I’m from a small town of 600,000 people: Washington, D.C. Whether out for errands or entertainment, my mother would inevitably bump into someone she knew. Short excursions lengthened as we lingered to talk to a neighbor, the Hechinger cashier, that lady from church, that guy from work. It happened uptown, downtown, across town and underground. The time, place and person a surprise, but a meet up of some kind was predictable. I remember tugging on my mother’s arm waiting for her to finish talking so we could move on… or catch up… or head home.
As a child I traveled easily, slept anywhere and took adventure for granted. My mother had arrived in the D.C. area in the late ’60s and gained her independence and confidence here. She gave me the world by teaching me that I was a turtle, with a home on my back, and I could live anywhere. Yet somehow she simultaneously showed me how to stay connected in a big city—how to form friendships as bonded as family ties and how to show up for your community. Feeling secure with both kinds of knowledge, I went away to college; I rode a bicycle to San Francisco; I visited four continents and 35 states. Then, I ended up back in D.C. and put down roots.
Somedays I feel like a small-town girl who never left the town limits and I hesitate to admit that I live and work only a few minutes from the house in which I grew up. But on most days I feel confident that I am at home. D.C. is the safest spot for my interracial, LGBTQ, artsy, activist, nerdy family. Even more, D.C. is where neighbors shovel us out of snowstorms and chase would-be bike thieves off our porch. I can call a friend who lives a block away when, at 4 a.m., I have food poisoning and my wife’s working the night shift and I need help with the baby.
Now, I have a daughter of my own and it is me chatting with the crossing guard, the Safeway cashier, the actor we saw in that Fringe show. Now it is my daughter tugging on my sleeve and rolling her eyes, “let’s go-wa!” I dream of giving her the world, right here at home.