I stood on a sidewalk in the middle of the Saint Ambrose University campus the first week of freshman year and listened. Methodic reverberations resonated across the late-summer grass. I walked alone under the lunchtime sun. A paltry 50 miles lay between my house and my dorm. I should have been homesick. I wasn’t. Homesickness did not register; I’d traveled too extensively for that to ruin an exciting new adventure.
I knew I belonged at Ambrose, but reason hadn’t yet caught up with intuition. Beyond the attempts at rationalizing my presence on campus was the quite wrong idea that another place, a place my family did not live, felt like home. Why was I there, who I would meet, and what person I would become were questions rattling discordantly in my head, a loud contrast with the metallic harmony that flowed around me as I stood silent on the sidewalk.
As the bells rang and rang, I was home.
I grew up on a street that gently sloped downhill until it dead-ended into a small, Midwestern liberal arts campus. My childhood house was the fourth from the corner, and it was never repainted in the time I remember. Thick white peels arced away from the wood siding, and chips plunged into the yard below like glaciers calving icebergs.
A younger me saw the bell tower atop the main campus building from my bedroom window. On Saturdays, the campus bells rang their lengthy tick-marks for noon, then cascaded into popular songs for fifteen minutes as I played in the backyard.
The college campus was my playground, an enticing open space three pedal strokes close. I rode my bike across the maze of sidewalks, circling in two-wheeled curves under the watch of stately columns and rollerbladed on expansive brick plazas, but I was never more than a few minutes from home. The same couldn’t be said for most people I whizzed past, those older kids, the college students. Ding-dongs from the bell tower above initiated my retreat home for dinner.
Now, bells signal familiar territory. I’m struck by a note of confidence from the bronze peals and brassy swells. Each ring wraps me in the memory of my family support structure back home. Each mundane cadence lends a predictable pace to a unknown place.
Wherever I roam, I tune in to this piece of home. The church bell chorus at St. Peter’s welcomed me to the Vatican. Clangs crashed into the sleepy morning at the hostel in Granada, Spain. Pings fill my memory of evenings in Prague.
Bells command attention. Come to church, go to class, answer the door. A bell’s existence is mainly functional for most people. For me, a steady ring grants a location the blessing of the address that set my expectations, the place that serves as the foundation on which my values of faith, family and friendship are built.
At the end of freshman year, I moved out of the residence hall as college students do. May was warm as I packed my life, once again, into the open bed of my Chevy S10 pickup. I sweated under my sleeveless shirt, and my St. Christopher medallion, an icon of the patron saint of travelers, stuck to my chest. A girl I knew — we’d attended the same schools since kindergarten — was on her way out. We said goodbye for the summer, strange because in an hour we’d be in the same place again, a few minutes apart.
Whether the stay is for the summer or just a holiday respite, college students are presented with the complication of home as a moving target. It’s a difficult task to pinpoint where such a place exists when the fourth house from the corner no longer satisfies the definition.
If the bells rang on move-out day, I missed them in my frenzied treks up and down four flights of stairs. I propped my arm on the open window’s edge as I left the parking lot and traveled back on familiar roads to an uncertain destination. I did not return home because I had left home. Now I realize I don’t need chipped paint. I need bronze. |
Dustin Renwick is a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.