I’ve been reading the shockingly beautiful On Homesickness by Kentucky native Jesse Donaldson. In what has been called a hybrid memoir that includes elements of history and mythology, Donaldson writes about his yearning to return to Kentucky after marrying and settling in Oregon. Like many young Kentuckians, he couldn’t wait to leave the state to pursue his dreams elsewhere, and he landed temporarily in several different states across the U.S. Then, unexpectedly, powerfully, he began to succumb to an overwhelming homesickness.
He writes, “I feel Kentucky’s draw like the thinnest of threads stitched into my heart—unspooled and fastened to a stake sunk into the marrowbone of home.”
During a recent speaking engagement at the new Brier Books in Lexington, he confessed that he wrote the book in part as a plea to his wife to consider relocating. However, now that they are raising a daughter in Oregon, he realizes that that goal has become increasingly unlikely.
After poring over my father’s journals, there is no doubt that Pud Goodlett was intensely homesick for Kentucky. He, too, had left his home state, although perhaps a bit more reluctantly, first to fulfill his military obligations and later to continue his education. Upon returning to The Last Resort after training at Camp Wolters, Texas, and Ft. Benning, Ga., he wrote “Coming home I was even more amazed at the wonderful countryside—HOME. Nothing can ever beat it.”
As his academic career continued to hold him in rural Massachusetts, he chafed at his inability to move closer to home. When he learned about a promising opportunity at the University of Kentucky, he and his wife, Mary Marrs, joyfully began preparing for the move, while fretting about its projected cost. It is one of the few truly sunny portions of his second journal, which is filled with professional turmoil and angst. That makes the heartbreak he conveys nearly unbearable when he learns that the position will not be offered to him because the current staff member has decided not to retire.
As a teenager, I remember learning how shocked some of Pud’s cousins had been when he chose to go out-of-state to complete his education. They had never left Kentucky and could not imagine why anyone would. At the time, that seemed laughably parochial to me. Now that I’ve read Pud’s most intimate thoughts at the time, I realize how well they knew him and just how much he suffered because of his choice.
As Donaldson writes, “life takes from us the places we’ve known and we rarely return to root ourselves a second time.” But he also mentions notable Kentuckians who have returned following a time away. Readers of Kentucky literature are fortunate that Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ed McClanahan and many, many others found their way home and chose to share their observations of their beautiful, mysterious, sometimes wacky, and sometimes damnably infuriating home.
Kentucky seems to have a draw like few other states. Few leave without suffering a nostalgia that many times brings them home. If this nostalgia is indeed a sickness, modern medicine has yet to find a cure.