Today I realized how spectacularly horrid being from Columbine, Colorado or Newtown, Connecticut must be sometimes. The place you were born, or went to middle school, or had your wedding reception is tagged in the minds of millions with irrational violence. Ugliness, grief, and madness has co-opted a piece of you.
I was born in Roanoke Memorial Hospital. I was apparently one of the few Asian babies that had come through that maternity ward and was somewhat of a curiosity. I was born there because my mother was living up the mountain in Floyd with her mother in the narrow slice of time between my parents moving to the States and my father finding a place to go to graduate school. My mother’s family had all been born in Floyd for the past 100 years, but there wasn’t an actual hospital there, so I was born in Roanoke, in deference to the birthing conventions of the later 20th century.
When I can first remember, my Granny actually lived in Roanoke during the week because she worked as a night nurse at Roanoke Memorial. We stayed in her tiny apartment once or twice, but we thought of our vacations as being to the family farm in Floyd. Roanoke was for day trips. Every year growing up, we went to Floyd, which meant that we usually went to Roanoke or the neighboring town of Salem, where one of my uncles and his family lived, at least once. Going to Roanoke itself usually meant driving down the steep switchbacks of Bent Mountain, descending into the valley where the air was heavier, hotter, and wetter than up mountains.
In 1975 or so we had one particularly stressful ride down to Roanoke Memorial because my brother, then a toddler, fell off a second story porch and split is face open. The trip down into the city, with my mother holding my brother in her arms with a bag of ice over his head seemed to take forever. (Yes, you read that right. In her arms. In the front seat. It was the 70s). When I was little the trip into Roanoke along 221 through Check and Copper Hill always took forever, because time means something different when you’re a little kid in a car with no iPad and no air conditioning. But when we were driving to Floyd from Michigan, a highway sign for Roanoke was the home stretch. All the long day’s drive I’d wait until the road signs started giving the distances, first to Columbus, Ohio, then to Charleston, West Virginia and finally Roanoke. Because then I could subtract miles, because Floyd was closer than Roanoke and we were Almost There!
In 1985, I lived with Granny for a few months and trips to Roanoke were a regular Sunday afternoon expedition. We’d go to Tanglewood Mall (a glamorous location where my even more glamorous cousin Kim worked) and have lunch at Spinnakers in the mall or the S&S cafeteria. My cousins were the big city kids and the local kids at the high school in Floyd would refer to Roanoke as a destination (“Roawh-noak,” in the cadence of the region).
On the occasions we’d come in or out of Roanoke at night, the big challenge was to keep an eye on the Star at all times. The Star was a big red, white, and blue sign/sculpture on Mill Mountain, overlooking the city. My brother and sisters and I thought it was super cool. You could see it from most of the places in the valley, but you had to be constantly switching which side of the car you looked out.
Sometimes when we’d travel up or down state to see my aunts in Charlottesville or Fairfax, we’d pass Roanoke along a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the scenic drive winding through the mountains. (My grandfather helped build parts of it in the 30s, as part of a Works Progress Administration project). From the Parkway Roanoke sprawled out in the flat spot between the foothills with the mountains ranged behind. They really do look blue on the ridges.
The last time I was in Roanoke was in 2009 for my cousin Dan’s wedding. We stayed with my cousin Iva in Roanoke itself, driving at one point past Tanglewood Mall. The rehearsal dinner was downtown, and from the right spot we could see the rooftops of the historic Hotel Roanoke. The ceremony and reception were at a resort in the hills above the valley, off one of the curves in the road. It was September and the hills and trees were perfectly green and the mountain air was cool. Afterwards as we drove home, looking at the lights of the city spread out in a twinkling blanket, watched over by the Star.
I’ve told people all my life I was born in Roanoke. I’d like for people to go on saying “Huh? Where’s that exactly?” Then I can describe how I know it. Today I saw an article that made Roanoke part of a phrase to analyze the shooting of the news station personnel there few weeks ago. It was a good article, but I’m not going to link to it or tell you the phrase because this is my small attempt to keep the ugly off of Roanoke. I’m bitter that the confluence of bad policy and madness that plagues this country put Roanoke on the list with other tragedies. While I’d like for those dead to be honored and remembered, I also want Roanoke to stay a small Appalachian city that has some regional name recognition, known for its silly neon star and beautiful scenery. If you’ve never been to Roanoke and hadn’t heard of it before last month, know that it is both ordinary and beautiful.