“So, Blair, are you going back east for Christmas?” The questioner looks at me expectantly.
“No,” I say. “We’ll be going back to Chicago to see my family.”
A pause. We exchange puzzled looks.
I used to have these odd conversations for the first couple of years after we moved from Chicago to Berkeley. After thirteen years here, I have caught on: To a Californian, Back East begins when you cross the Mississippi River. Chicago certainly qualifies. For me, on the other hand, a visit Back East means going to New York, to see our older son (who went to NYU for college and never returned) and my husband’s family.
In Chicago, where I spent the longest stretch of my life, Back East meant the East Coast. But not the whole eastern seaboard. It meant New England, the mid-Atlantic. New York and the surrounding area. The original thirteen colonies, except for the southern ones.
Back East, to a child of the Midwest, was not just a direction or a specific place. It was a state of mind. The place where we were not.
Back East represented a more cultivated, refined land—although probably more pretentious, as well. Chicago was the City of the Big Shoulders. Hog Butcher to the World. We might be the Second City, but certainly not a second class one. We had the University of Chicago, my alma mater. Home to more Nobel Laureates than any other university—and birthplace of the first nuclear reaction. Planted in the midst of a south side neighborhood known as the Greenwich Village of the Midwest, more recently as home to Barack Obama.
Cleveland, land of my birth, is a slightly different story. I lived there until I was fifteen. It is certainly east of Chicago, and a little more identified with the East Coast. But still, when all is said and done, Ohio is part of the Midwest.
But now I live in California, so perhaps I qualify as someone from Back East. That gives me a chuckle.
At times, I still feel confused, because East always meant looking toward the sea. Looking right when you study a map, or when you face north.
In my new life, the sea is here, less than a mile away. I live out west, on the Left Coast.
I look left. I look right.
I still feel turned around.
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders