This is going to be a controversial statement, but I think the bakery in my hometown in Illinois makes the best donuts on the planet.
It’s not just their amazing variety or the decadent cream filling or the dough so light it can only have been created through witchcraft. The secret ingredient at Ellison’s Bakery is the many years of memories associated with those donuts. With each bite, I remember biking downtown for breakfast with my parents or heading to the bakery with church friends after early morning Bible studies. The tables in the window-front haven’t changed in thirty years and I can see my teenaged self, crammed into a booth with my friends, laughing and dabbing powdered sugar on each other’s cheeks.
I think – and write – about the concept of “place” a lot. I’m interested in exploring what binds us to our communities. What I’m realizing is that it’s not the place itself that holds our hearts – it is the memories associated with that place.
It has been nearly two decades since I lived in that small town and I no longer really think of it as “home,” but a recent trip back with my kids reminded me again of how powerful ‘place memories’ can be. One sunny morning, we walked to the playground at my elementary school. It’s only three blocks away from the house I grew up in, but those blocks are crammed with memories. We walked by the house that used to have a little candy store on the front porch, where my friends and I would stop to buy lemon heads after school. We passed the house where the first boy I ever kissed lived.
When we reached the edge of the playground, I had a sudden memory of wandering across the basketball courts, my nose buried in a Madeline L’Engle book, dodging the balls flying around me. My kids and I played tag together on the rundown tennis courts where I first learned to hit a ball with a racket.
Another day, we took a walk around a lagoon and I pointed out a distinctive birch tree with a deep fork in it. One of the iconic photographs of my childhood is of myself and a friend, both of us around five years old, peeking through those very branches. I remember feeding the ducks at the lagoon – and being chased by the geese!
My mom still owns the same bright-red convertible that I used to borrow when I was in high school. There was nothing cooler than cruising to the local ice cream stand with your friends with the top down. I drove my kids around a couple times on this trip and they loved it, of course. I could hear my friends’ laughter echo in my kids’ voices – the same delight at the feel of the wind in our hair.
My childhood hometown is similar to my current hometown in a lot of ways. It has roughly the same population, a charming downtown, good schools, and a nearby university. Maybe that’s why I put down roots here so quickly. I’m not planning on going anywhere anytime soon and I love watching my kids developing their own “place memories.” Thirty years from now, I hope that they’ll remember biking to school with their friends and jumping on the neighbor’s trampoline. I hope that when they come back to visit, we’ll walk along Main Street and they will wax nostalgic about downtown music festivals, movies on the lawn in the park, and nerf gun battles in the hallways of the Arts Center.
And donuts. There will definitely be donuts in those special childhood memories and I’ll bet my kids will remember them as the best in the world.