I was 5 when Hurricane Hazel struck Philadelphia. At dinnertime, my father appeared at the back door, the blood drained from his face. He'd been on his way home from work when a tree fell in front of his car, just missing it. Dad climbed out into the thrashing winds, hauled himself over the log, and walked the last hundred yards.
That night, the electricity went out just after the soup warmed, and our mother put candles on our white Formica kitchen table so we could see the food, our eyes shining in the hurricane dark. My brother, sister, and I loved it.
The storm cemented my bond with Philadelphia and its mysteries. I remember the Midtown Theater on Chestnut, where our mother took us for matinees featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Steve McQueen; Schrafft's restaurant, where we sat at the counter and ate big butterscotch sundaes; and the shortcuts our father found through Fairmount Park when the Schuylkill was clotted with cars.
But then I left. I turned 17 and went to college, and my visits to Philly dwindled to once, maybe twice a year, to see my parents and, after my mom's death, my dad and his wife, Barbara. They lived in the suburbs, so the Philadelphia energy I loved grew remote. If I was lucky, I grabbed a hoagie, read The Inquirer, and went to the Gladwyne Guard House, with its low ceilings, tiny rooms, and fat steaks. But I hardly got a taste of the real Philadelphia.
Then, last September, my 93-year-old father, who had beat Hurricane Hazel, lost to pneumonia. I went to the city where my nephew and cousin still live, where I know the stressed car honks, the distinct tongue ("Have a murry, murry Christmas"), and the pickup pizzerias that could fit in your closet.
In my saddest hour, I was embraced by family and friends in the big old house my nephew owns off City Line. More than that, I was embraced by the city.
One afternoon, after we'd met with the minister about arrangements, we all scattered, and I thought a walk through my nephew's neighborhood during a sudden burst of cold fall weather would clear my head.
About a block away, a church - the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, the first black Episcopal church in the United States - was having a bake sale, and I had a house to feed. I bought up trays of fried chicken and cupcakes and got to talking to one of the members of the choir. She handed me a CD of their work and invited me to come the next day, Sunday, to hear them sing. Another member of the congregation offered to drive me back to my nephew's house with the food.
The next day, I went back to the church and took most of my family with me. The pastor passed around a microphone, asking newcomers to introduce themselves. My nephew and I did, talking far too long. I thanked the congregants for being so warm and inclusive, even though they didn't know they were comforting a broken heart.
And so, at 61, I decided I wanted to go home. I'm not saying my decision was based on chicken and cupcakes. It was more the meeting of loss with inclusion, vulnerability with welcome.
After more than four decades spent mostly in Knoxville, Tenn. - where my husband and I found jobs when we were young and untethered enough to roam - I know what I need: Philly hoagies, Utz potato chips, and fat pastrami sandwiches. I need 30th Street Station and its Angel of Mercy. I need the Phillies and the Union League. I need a choir that lifts more than notes to its cathedral ceiling. I'm a Philadelphian, and, this month, I'm going home.