Life as a missionary kid left Nate Owens without a hometown and longing for stability, bouncing between small Midwest towns and countries overseas.
I didn’t grow up in Mount Vernon, OH. I didn’t really grow up in any one place at all. At no point in my childhood did I live in any city longer than four years. I was taken all over the world with my missionary parents, living in such far-flung places as Amman and Dakar. Every couple of years we would return to the United States so my parents could speak at churches and raise financial support. And every time we returned, we didn’t return to small town Michigan, where I had been born and raised before we went overseas. We returned to Mount Vernon, where my mom’s parents had retired from their own missionary career.
Now that I think about it, it wasn’t their hometown either. They were both raised in the South before embarking on a 45-year career in the Philippines and Ecuador. As their six kids began heading to college, they gravitated toward Central Ohio. Just outside of Mount Vernon there used to be a Bible college, a foreboding brick building that still stands there today, mostly abandoned except during Halloween, when it fulfills its destiny as a haunted house. My uncle attended there, and then his five sisters arrived at a Nazarene college in Mount Vernon proper. When it came time for my grandparents to retire, Mount Vernon was the obvious place. They bought a huge brown house on Wooster Road, and that was where we stayed when we came back to the US.
So you can see that while I didn’t grow up in Mount Vernon, I did land there. Almost all of my family did at some point. Our landing was our re-introduction to American culture after four long years in Amman, Jordan. To be a missionary kid (or a third-culture kid, as the current terminology goes) is to be without a hometown. It means you can never really say where you’re from. Some missionary kids are able to call another country their home, but I had moved to Jordan too late in life to feel like anything besides a foreigner. I was heartbroken to leave our home in Michigan, and while I formed a life in Jordan I longed for the day when I would return to the land of my birth, even if it was a little south of where I grew up. To me, Ohio was the Promised Land, a return to normalcy after so many years in the wilderness.
If you’ve ever been to Mount Vernon, you know what an absurd statement that is. It can charitably be described as quaint. The downtown is crossed with streets that still sport the red brick of its colonial roots, the kind that rattle your teeth as you drive down them. It’s the birthplace of Dan Emmett, the minstrel singer who wrote “Dixie,” and of Paul Lynde, whose name is memorialized in the local high school auditorium. Just down at the corner of Main St. and Wooster is an old house that I’m told was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
But if you aren’t into obscure facets of American history, Mount Vernon has little to offer aside from two universities, Mount Vernon Nazarene University and Kenyon College in nearby Gambier. And even in that regard there isn’t much to crow about. The only coffee shop in town closes at six in the evening, and since MVNU is a dry campus there isn’t a particularly rowdy community there. The local teenagers will spend their evenings cruising around the square in what I can only assume is an homage to American Graffiti. The thin veneer of academia covers what is essentially a hick town, where country boys waltz around in wife-beaters, baggy pants, and backwards Ohio State hats.
But I wanted it. Not specifically what Mount Vernon offered, but what any town in the USA could have offered me at that point. It as a stable location, something I could point to and say, “This is where I’m from.” I threw myself into church, school, and life in general. I was going to be from somewhere, by golly, and Mount Vernon was the place that was available. I didn’t exactly fall in love with the town. I think it’s only big city lawyers in movies who fall in love with places like Mount Vernon. But my fourteen-year-old self simply accepted it as a surrogate hometown.
And as I got deeper into the community it stopped being where I ended up, and it became home. I can see the markers of my time there all over the community. There’s the high school football field, where I watched as the normally-terrible Yellow Jackets somehow defeated the defending division champs and went 7-3 my sophomore year. I look at that strange little building just across the street from my Grandma’s old house that used to be a pizza place, then a beauty salon, and now sits abandoned. And there’s that little ice cream store just down the road where I spent a summer working during college.
I know that Mount Vernon was where I fell in love with college football. Those cool Saturdays spent watching Ohio State play on TV have never left me. And of course, on Monday at school you had to dissect the game with your classmates. My best friend was a Michigan fan, and he took great pleasure in pointing out Ohio State’s pitiful record against the Wolverines in those years. But I got the last laugh. We roomed together all four years in college and I watched the Buckeyes beat Michigan three of the four years we were roommates.
But mostly, Mount Vernon was where I rediscovered my family. It was where I got to know my grandpa, who in the four years we had been gone had progressed deep into the tremors of Parkinson’s. I remember watching the Cleveland Indians make a World Series run in 1997 mostly from my grandparents’ living room, and I remember crying as I listened to them lose game seven on the radio with my dad. I remember my aunt who took it upon herself to be the cool one, and always let me come over with my friends to spend the night at her house. And since my dad’s parents lived on an hour away in Zanesville, we frequently made the trip down highway 586 through the foothills of the Appalachians to visit them on weekends. It’s still my favorite road I’ve ever driven on.
Given my history of moving frequently and a childhood spent in a constant state of adjustment, the remarkable thing about Mount Vernon is that it’s the only place I’ve ever returned to. When I graduated from high school in Dakar, Senegal, I could have gone anywhere to college. But for reasons that I don’t totally understand, it was never really a choice. Of course I would return to Mount Vernon and attend the Nazarene university. I barely considered anywhere else. I’m not sure, but I think the biggest reason was that I wanted something to go back to. It was something familiar in a life spent forever in culture shock.
During my four years of college, I became so attached that I simply assumed I would hang around after college. It seemed like such an obvious thing to do. But it was then that my parents made the decision to take a job in Saginaw, Michigan. Unable to find work in the Mount Vernon area, I followed them north and eventually made my way out west to Kansas City. I’ve now been in Kansas City for seven years, longer than any other place in my life. I met my wife here, had a family, and consider Kansas City to be where I’m “from” now.
But I still return to Mount Vernon now and then. My grandfather on my mom’s side passed away while I was in college. After I moved away, my grandma didn’t see much sense in keeping that enormous house without a college-age grandson who needed to spend vacations there. She moved to a smaller condo just around the corner. My dad’s parents eventually moved to Mount Vernon from Zanesville, where they had lived literally their entire lives. They moved to another condo literally four doors from my other grandma. I still have friends who live nearby, mostly in Columbus and the surrounding area.
I never once felt trapped in Mount Vernon during my four years of college, but now it feels impossibly remote. It’s like visiting a house where you lived as a child, one that used to seem so large and now seems so tiny. How on earth did I not go crazy here?
And yet I come back. I don’t go back to the small towns I grew up in in Michigan. I’ve only been back to Weidman or New Lothrop a couple of times since I moved away. I’ve never been back to Jordan since I left, and I’ve only returned to Senegal a couple of times when my family still lived there. I haven’t been to any of those places with my two sons. But I have taken them back to Mount Vernon. It’s not where I grew up, but it was my anchor. It was and is something familiar in a life that has been sadly short of familiar things.
Photo credit: Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons