After one of the warmest winters in recent memory, trees are just now beginning to take leaf here in Toledo. That event is normally a happy one for me, as I can finally relax about the perils of winter driving, hang my heavy coat up and get ready for the most tolerable of all the seasons in this part of the country. (I’m still a summer child, but great googly moogly, have they been getting too hot around here lately.) This year, though, the reminder of nature coming back to life is kind of hard to take in the wake of Mom’s passing this past October, especially as later this month I’ll be marking the first anniversary of the start of her long hospitalization (and six months since her passing). On top of that, I’m realizing that this will, in all likelihood, be the last spring I spend in this city, and as wretched as this place can be, the drastic change of an imminent move is never easy to deal with, even in the best of times. Needless to say, this darn sure isn’t the best of times for me right now.
Toledo didn’t get any real big-box grocery stores until the late 1980s; Kroger used to have a store about a mile from where I lived, but it was tiny by modern standards. When I was little, Mom would take me to a variety of different local grocery chains like Centre Supermarkets and Food Town; I never asked her how she picked which store she went to, and I’m feeling sad all over again as I realize that now I can only assume what her motivations were for going to different stores. The closest thing we had to a “big” grocery store was a branch of another local chain, Churchill’s, which kind of had a general merchandise selection but felt more like a 1980’s drugstore tacked onto a 1980’s grocery store. It was a couple of miles out of the way of our usual grocery haunts, but hardly a week went by where Mom didn’t go there to do a little shopping, for reasons I can only guess at now.
What struck me about Churchill’s, even when I was only four or five years old, was that all the cashiers there were 16- and 17-year-old females. That remained the case until that particular location was sold to Farmer Jack (who exited Toledo shortly after they entered, leaving that store to get torn down a couple of years ago to make room for yet another hospital). I don’t want to make any assumptions about why that store only hired very young female cashiers, but when i was very young, and I wasn’t so observant about the world around me, I never noticed that there were different cashiers year after year. To me, it felt like the cashiers weren’t aging, whereas I kept growing and changing appearance and all that fun stuff. I can still remember those misconceptions decades later, because it’s easy to recall the fear I felt then, that I was the only person changing over time while the rest of the world went on like usual. That kind of thing can be very scary to a young mind.
Part of the reason why I didn’t have such an easy time grasping that people were changing around me was because I never had to deal with the death of anyone close to me — not even a pet — until I was in my twenties. Just going back twenty years ago from today, I still had not only both my parents, but all four of my grandparents as well. Now they’re all gone, along with an aunt and uncle, two of my three closest friends from my University of Toledo days, the best music teacher I ever had, and more cats than I care to remember right now. I don’t know if twenty years is a normal span for that kind of loss, but it sure doesn’t feel like it, especially in light of all the celebrity deaths of the past couple of years that have also touched me.
I realize that things go on, of course, even if it’s still kind of a struggle for me to move on from Mom’s passing. As one of my students reminded me during one of Mom’s most dire periods last year, I am Mom’s gift to the world, and so I feel obliged to carry on her legacy and greatness for her. That is a legacy that no human being ever could live up to, but it’s fallen upon me to do so, and so I’ve got to keep trying to live by her example every day of my life, as difficult as that can be (especially when the outside world has gotten so turbulent and crazy). If nothing else, I can’t ask my students to push themselves to do their best in my classes if I’m not pushing myself to do my best as well. (That’s just one of the many lessons I can thank Mom for.)
Mom didn’t leave the house that much in her final years, due to a variety of factors. That forced me to become more aware of what was going on in the city around us, just so I could report things to her and prepare her for those increasingly rare trips she was making. After she was hospitalized, I watched out for changes in Toledo even more, so we’d have more things to talk about while she was convalescing. There were certainly enough changes being made — the big highway interchange near our house was completely rebuilt and redesigned, more and more stores were vacated, and roads were blocked off for months at a time for repairs that only lasted for a couple of weeks — but since Mom didn’t move to Toledo until she was in her mid-twenties, I don’t think she felt the same sentimentality for places that I did. She seemed to appreciate the news, but I don’t think that those changes ultimately mattered that much to her.
Since I’ll probably be moving very soon, it feels like these changes shouldn’t matter so much to me either, and yet they do. More to the point, the fact that I won’t be around to see the next rounds of changes — given how crappy the local economy is, I can only assume that we’re about to go through even more waves of stores closing and people leaving — really bothers me. On the whole, I definitely want to leave Toledo and move on to another chapter of my life, but there’s still that part of me that wants to stay here, and carry on as close to the way things used to be as I can manage, and I don’t think it’s just my garden-variety fear of change at work here.
What I want to think is that I don’t want to be torn from the locations that mean so much to me because of Mom. Even when a place has changed, I can still point to a spot south of my house and say, “There used to be a K-Mart there, that Mom drove my father’s Fiero to, even though she hated driving that thing, just so I could get a copy of Super Mario Bros. 3 after it came out.” I can point to another spot west of there and say, “There was a Friendly’s restaurant there back in the day, where my parents would take me after my piano recitals, and I’d always get a Reese’s Pieces sundae.” There are hundreds of places like that all over town, and even when the memories are decades old, they sure don’t feel like it. All those places are a testament to Mom’s greatness, and her love for me, and it feels like those memories will disappear if I go away, if I leave this city and (more than likely) never return.
I’d like to think that I’m honouring Mom and her memory by staying here, but I know that’s not true. It’s just my ego rearing its ugly head again. Not only are all those places going to go on without me, not only do other people have claims on those places as well, but I just want to cling onto those memories so I don’t have to change, so I don’t have to deal with Mom’s passing more than I already am. That’s not just unhealthy for me, but it’s also the last thing Mom would want me to do. She would want me to move on, to take the lessons she taught me, and the love she gave me, and create a new life for myself, which will happen when i finally get out of this city. That, more than anything, is why I need to get out of here, why I need to leave the new highway interchange and boarded-up storefronts and all that stuff, and get on with my own life here, wherever it takes me next.
As I’ve learned time and time again these past few years, getting over the passing of a loved one gets easier over time, but it never gets easy. Given how close I was to Mom — and how close I still feel to her now — it’s unrealistic to expect that I will ever feel good about leaving Toledo (even if, in many respects, it’s a fucking shithole). I have to do it, though. The city is changing around me, but more importantly, I’m changing as well, and I’m far too observant now to fall for the same delusions that afflicted me when I was little. Those cashiers all left Churchill’s when it was their time to go, and now it’s time for me to leave this city and get on with my life.