My Town's Pain

By Madelyn Rosenberg
Wednesday, April 18, 2007

I wasn't born in Blacksburg, Va., but I lived there most of my life. If my husband hadn't dragged me to a bigger city -- "where something actually happens and restaurants serve more than hamburgers" -- I'd be there still.

Your home town defines you. It helps make you what you are. Now that this thing, this massacre, has defined my home town, I wonder if my definition is going to change, too.

Last August, when a gunman committed a double murder in Blacksburg, people said the town had lost its innocence. Ridiculous, hyperbolic swill, I thought. Transplants. Commentators. What did they know? It was awful, yes, especially for the families of the people killed. It would scar the town. But the scar would fade.

What happened in Blacksburg this week will not fade.

I feel for the families whose loved ones died. I feel for the students who eventually will have to go back to Norris Hall and for the professors who will have to teach as if life just goes on. I feel for the staff members who will have to paint those once-white walls.

And I feel for the town.

When I heard the first news reports, I wanted to get in my car and drive home. It was as if I needed to visit an ailing relative, to tell her one more time that I loved her. But my kids had school, and my husband had work; I settled for e-mails and phone calls to loved ones.

My last memory of Blacksburg, then, is from two weeks ago: redbuds bursting along the highway and in my mother's front yard. My children watching as the painted turtles sunbathed at Pandapas Pond. The fresh-mowed grass, filled with the promise of spring.

I smiled a lot and ate chicken and lentils at a new Ethiopian restaurant and marveled at the changes. It is law in a real home town that its children forever marvel at its changes. That is why I can walk along Main Street and still be shocked that the arcade where I played Caterpillar and flirted with Tim Harrison is now a college bookstore.

But no one who is thinking about Blacksburg now is thinking about the redbuds.

The gray stone of the campus buildings conjures the gray stone of a cemetery, and the maroon of a college sweatshirt is the color of dried blood.

My inclination is to write an obituary, though my home town isn't dead. It is survived by a lot of friendly, caring people.

And if they can survive, the town can survive, too, even as people talk about death. Even as people across the country watch TV and see someone else's town, someone else's school.

Say what you will about the end of innocence. But remember that just the other day, Blacksburg was a beautiful small town in America. Like yours.

Madelyn Rosenberg is a freelance writer in Arlington.

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