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Charles Nelson Reilly died on May 25, 2007, at the age of 76.
May 25, 2019
Two weeks ago, my parents bought a new house. It’s out in Winterville, a town just outside Athens, a very charming little burg that happens to have singer-songwriter Dodd Ferrelle as its mayor. It’s close; it takes about 15 minutes to get from our hours to theirs. Mom and Dad have been in an Athens townhouse while they looked for a more permanent home for more than a year now, which means they’re now a part of my family’s daily lives. They have the boys over all the time, they get to attend all their baseball games, and just yesterday they made it to Wynn’s summer camp end-of-week playhouse performance, in which he played a dragon, roared a lot and tried not to trip on his costume.
They have both been retired for several years, and they have chosen, as they approach their eighth decade, to move out here and spend as much time as they can with their only two grandchildren. Mom already has a part-time job at the student medical center, and Dad’s everybody’s favorite neighborhood handyman, the guy who can fix whatever’s broken at your house and keeps forgetting to ask to get paid. I haven’t lived in the same town as my parents in more than 25 years, and having them this close is a gift. I had forgotten what it was like being able to just say hello to them anytime I want. It’s nice. My parents are aging nicely.
But them coming here means they had to leave there. My home of Mattoon is my home no longer.
An old friend of mine was spending her holiday on a skiiing trip in Utah about a decade ago, back before the days of 23andMe and that sort of shady business, and she called me saying she was spending a day at the world’s largest genealogical library in Salt Lake City. “Would you like me to look up your family?” she asked. I’d always been curious. I’m just a generic white kid from farm country Illinois. Was I originally German? Italian? Irish? She called me the next day. “It’s crazy,” she said. “I went back and tracked your parents and their parents and their parents all the way back to the Civil War.” She paused. “They were all from Mattoon, Illinois. You’re not from anywhere. Your nationality is Mattoonian.”
My dad built the house I grew up in, and then, when I left for college, built another one across the road. He used to drive me around town and point out houses my grandfather had built. He has seven brothers and sisters, all of whom live within a 25-mile radius of Mattoon. None of the Leitch boys had ever left Mattoon until Dad was stationed at an Air Force base in Virginia, and he came right back afterwards. But then his only son went to college — the first Leitch boy to do that too — and then off to Los Angeles and St. Louis and then New York, and wow, he was in New York forever, and you know, it looks like he’s not coming back. Now Bryan, the oldest son of those eight kids, has moved too. And now Mattoon is just some place I used to be.
I have lived in many places, but nothing has ever felt like home the way that Mattoon has. It’s still the place I’ve lived the longest.
- Mattoon, 17 years
- New York, 13 1/2 years
- Athens, 6 years
- Champaign, 4 years
- St. Louis, 1 1/2 years
- Los Angeles, 1 year
But it’s obviously not just that. It was my home, the first place I did pretty much everything. Even years after I was gone, going back to Mattoon always felt like a place of peace, the one place where I could get away from the madness of the rest of the world and just catch my goddamned breath for a second. When I would come home for holidays or a funeral or a graduation or a Cardinals weekend, I always slept more soundly there than anywhere else. After everyone else went to bed, I would sit out on the porch with a drink and just stare at the stars. You can see more stars in the rural Midwest than you can see almost anywhere else. It was cleansing. It reminded me that the universe was so much vaster than whatever my problems were. It put everything right.
As the years went along, I knew a lot fewer people in Mattoon, and by the end, it was just my parents and my cousin Denny. Mattoon went through dramatic changes, suffering the same sad economic downfall we’ve seen throughout towns like Mattoon all across the country. Downtown Mattoon, in particular, stands as a sad monument to what the town once was and will struggle to ever be again. Some of the downtown family-owned businesses, gutted by the Wal-Mart out by the freeway and the cascading closings of nearly every factory in town, shut down so quickly, never to be replaced by anything, that their signs are still outside their abandoned storefronts, more than a decade later. There are strong, proud, hopeful people working every day to keep Mattoon a viable, healthy place to build a life and raise a family. But it’s hard. It’s hard out there everywhere.
But I never stopped wanting to get back at every opportunity I had. It was my town. It was the Leitches’ town. It was home. And I was welcomed back, with open arms, every time, whether it was for a book signing or a class reunion or a wedding nearby or a speech in the wake of a local tragedy. No matter what happened elsewhere, I always had Mattoon.
When my parents told everyone they were going to move, frankly, I’m not sure anyone believed them. Nobody leaves Mattoon. And as much as I wanted to see them, I wasn’t sure I was ready not to have that connection to Mattoon anymore. If I didn’t have them in Mattoon as a homebase, what homebase did I have? But Mom wasn’t at the hospital anymore, and Dad wasn’t at CIPS anymore, and the grandkids were in Georgia, a place, unlike New York City, my parents could imagine themselves living.
So they did it. They bought the townhouse in East Athens while searching for the right home, and just last month, they finally sold their old house, the one Bryan Leitch built 20 years ago. They sold to his brother, obviously, another Leitch in another Leitch house. Nearly 70 years of a life there currently sits in a storage shed in Mattoon and a garage in Athens, waiting to make the trip to Winterville once they’re ready to move in. There’s a dog pen in the back of the new house, and Dad’s gonna build himself a garage. It will be home before they know it. They are here now. I am lucky and happy to have them.
I’ll make it back. It is too much of a part of me not to. I’ll go get a 12-pack of beer with Denny, go eat at Little Mexico, maybe catch a Mattoon Green Wave baseball game out at Peterson Park. But it will not be the place to return to. I will have to find a place to catch my breath elsewhere.
But home is where you make it. My parents’ townhouse is perfectly fine, the type of place that’s ideal for, say, a graduate student to finish out their studies before moving out into the world. But there is nothing special or unique about it. It looks like every other house on the block. But I’ve noticed, in the last few months, that every time I go see them there, or I drop the kids off there, I find myself kicking my shoes off and sprawling out on comfortably on the couch there in a way I don’t do anywhere else, including sometimes even my own home. The place isn’t cozy. I have no history there. They won’t even be living there in six months. But this anonymous transitional townhouse has begun to feel ... like that place I get away from the madness. It’s not about where we once were. It never was. It was about who we were with, and how they made us feel at home no matter where we actually were. It’s about who’s there with you.
I’ll always have Mattoon. It will always be the place where the stars go on forever. But I’ll always have what comes next too.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality. You may disagree. It is your wont.
1. Professional Sports League Drafts Are Un-American, New York. It’s true! This one got at exactly what I was wanting to say. That doesn’t happen as often as you’d think!
2. Debate Club: Godzilla Movies, SYFY Wire. Shin Godzilla is really good!
3. Best Games of 2019 So Far, MLB.com. This is back from when the Cardinals hadn’t made me hate baseball yet.
4. Early Comeback Player of the Year Candidates, MLB.com. The world is better when Dexter Fowler is smiling and enjoying himself.
5. Will Smith Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. I am actually seeing Aladdin about 15 minutes after sending out this newsletter.
6. Monthly Update: The Standings Are Lying to You, MLB.com. They like this feature over there.
7. The Thirty: The Hardest Players to Strike Out, MLB.com. Lists!
THE WILL LEITCH SHOW
No show this week. Watch the old ones on Amazon or on SI TV.
Grierson & Leitch, Grierson’s in Cannes, so we discussed “John Wick: Chapter Three,” “The Souvenir” and “No Country For Old Men.”
Seeing Red, Bernie and I are wailing to the heavens about the Cardinals.
Waitin’ Since Last Saturday, no show this week.
GET THIS LUNATIC OUT OF HERE 2020 PRESIDENTIAL POWER RANKINGS
Good week for Mayor Pete; that Fox News appearance is exactly how it’s done. (You can just talk to people, and have them talk to you. How novel.) I’ve been a little skeptical of the guy, but he’s growing on me. I’m still not sure he’s ready to be President, but I loved how clearly irritated he was, as a veteran, by Trump’s military “record.” He’s got tons of fight in him. I think I want Kamala Harris to pick him as Veep.
1. Kamala Harris
2. Elizabeth Warren
3. Joe Biden
4. Beto O’Rourke
5. Pete Buttigieg
6. Amy Klobuchar
7. Kirsten Gillibrand
8. Cory Booker
9. Julian Castro
10. Bernie Sanders
11. Jay Inslee
12. Seth Moulton
13. John Hickenlooper
14. Michael Bennet
15. Bill de Blasio
16. Marianne Williamson
17. Steve Bullock
18. Tim Ryan
19. Eric Swalwell
20. John Delaney
21. William Weld
22. Andrew Yang
23. Tulsi Gabbard
24. Wayne Messam
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
Oh, yeah, great batch of this week. I knew you’d come through. Bring ‘em on at:
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X. So, it finally happened: My children — aged seven and four, I reminder you — introduced me to a song and ... I like it! I know. I KNOW. But I am not immune to this song’s, and it’s creator’s, charms. You gotta love a 20-year-old who’s just pulling one over and everyone and laughing all the way to the bank and more. And yeah: It is a super catchy song. It’s over. I give. I’m the dopiest dad of all time. I apologize for NOTHING.
We had people over to the house and we made pizza. I am a gourmet chef.
Have a great weekend, all.