When Home Isn’t Home Any More

This morning, I woke up to news that an icon of my childhood hometown burned down last night. Texts and social media posts rolled in one after another, and I watched from afar as old friends and neighbors chronicled the demise of the historic South Lyon Hotel on my screens.

One image, in particular, has riveted my attention. It shows flames roaring out of the top of the building while the sign for the street on which I grew up sits poignantly in the foreground — oblivious to the plight of its most famed resident.

photo by Tracey Hill Photography

As a SL ‘townie’ who grew up on Whipple, for me this building more than any other (yes, even more than the Witch’s Hat) stands out as a symbol of “where I come from” — and, if you know the history of the hotel at all, you know that packs a lot of meaning. The SL Hotel started out as a grand idea, then fell into years of disrepair with questionable patronage & activity, then was rebuilt with hope and hard work to become someplace not only reputable, but valued & loved (and worthy of loving). I can identify.

An early photo of the Hotel, well before my time.
The South Lyon Hotel as it looked when I was a young child. Not fun to walk past!
The renovated Hotel that most SL residents see as an emblem of community.

I keep coming back to the photo, and it’s making me cry the kind of big, ugly sobs that force you to realize that whatever it is you’re crying about is way bigger, way more significant than an old building you walked past as a child and built memories in with friends as an adult. Kinda like Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God, I felt something fall off the shelf inside of me when I came across that photo, and then I had to go inside there to see what it was.

photo by Tracey Hill Photography

When I got in there and looked around, I saw my mom. My mom, with whom I have a complicated, difficult relationship (as do all my sisters). My mom, who recently began hospice care due to what is most likely cancer, and definitely years of neglecting her health. My mom, who is dying back there in that same little hometown.

I’ve been planning a trip home to SL since I found out mom was this unwell. And by “planning,” I mean “avoiding.”

I know that most good children probably want to rush home to see their ailing parents as much as possible before the inevitable. I, instead, have struggled. The dread I have been feeling about visiting SL to see mom has multiplied exponentially with the news of this morning’s fire. I don’t want to go home to SL and drive by that gutted building. But it’s more than that.

Quotation by Juno Diaz, with gratitude to Rebecca Thomas for reminding me.

It’s made me realize just how much I’ve insulated myself over these years with both space (a few states’ distance) and also with carefully honed emotional callouses. My logic seems to have been, “If I stay away, both physically and emotionally, I won’t feel a thing.”

The armchair therapists currently reading this piece will be happy to know that I’ve figured it out. Just because I don’t want to feel it, doesn’t mean I won’t. I’ve got to go home, and I’ve got to see (and feel) that big parts of what that used to mean to me aren’t there anymore.

I’d say, “let’s have a beer at the Hotel while I’m in town,” but….

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If you’re interested, here are more photos of the Hotel fire taken by Tracey Hill.

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