The snapshot is of a girl in a gray Allegheny College hoodie, one she purchased in the campus bookstore on one of her pre-college visits. She is gazing at the camera, chin on fist, an open notebook on the table in front of her, a pen clutched between her fingers. She is not smiling.
The girl in the gray sweatshirt is me, more than three decades ago.
I look at the photo today, and I remember the melancholy and relief, the complicated emotions I experienced upon completing the first term of my first year of college. I remember that unmoored sensation, adrift between old and new and unknown.
It was a few days before Thanksgiving, and I had a long six-week holiday vacation ahead of me before I would return for second term. I had survived my first round of final exams, and with that stress behind me, I was looking forward to seeing my mom and dad and two younger brothers, waiting for me in a house I’d never seen, on the other side of the state.
Just a month earlier, my family had relocated from a northwestern suburb of Pittsburgh to a northeastern suburb of Philadelphia.
When I chose to go to Allegheny, one of the selling points of this idyllic liberal arts college in western Pennsylvania was its proximity to home. I knew before Christmas of my senior year of high school that this is where I would go. I found out shortly after I graduated that, instead of a two-hour drive to visit my family, it would take eight hours door to door.
Now that finals were over, I felt homeless. The home of my high school years now belonged to another family, and the home I had known for the last ten weeks was a dorm room two hours north. When the photo was snapped, I was hanging out with my mom’s brother and his family for a few days. On Thanksgiving Day morning, we would all pile into Uncle John’s station wagon for the journey from one end of the scenic Pennsylvania turnpike to the other, where I would spend my long holiday break in a home I had yet to see.
When we arrived, I had to ask where to find the bathroom.
I spent the first 18 years of my life getting used to new homes. Thanks to my father’s frequent corporate job transfers, I had never lived any particular place for more than five years. Home was where the family was. I learned to make new friends and adjust to new situations. As long as I could count on going home—wherever that was—to be with my mom and dad and brothers, everything was okay.
Every time I reread my favorite Laura Ingalls Wilder book, These Happy Golden Years, I was thrilled by the romance of Laura finally marrying Almanzo. And I cried every time I read the last chapter, when Laura moved out of Ma and Pa’s house and into a home of her own.
I cried when my mom and dad left me at college one sunny September afternoon a couple weeks shy of my eighteenth birthday. But my tears dried quickly as years of new-kid-in-school practice kicked in. I met the other young women in my residence hall. I participated in all the orientation week events. I found new friends with whom to eat and study and explore campus and the surrounding town. I met boys, and I enjoyed my first post-high school almost-requited crush.
And then came the casual invitation that would set the course for the rest of my life so far.
When a new friend, a senior named Karen, invited me to a Christian fellowship meeting, I said yes. Because, why not? I had been saying yes to everything, from fraternity parties to movie nights to spontaneous late-night pizza deliveries.
A life-long church-goer, I had been involved in my high school youth group, but I had given no thought one way or the other about whether I would continue to go to church as a college student. Bible studies and service projects and retreats had no place on my pre-college bucket list.
Who knew that this is where I would find my people—and my calling?
What the girl in the gray sweatshirt did not know on that long ago Thanksgiving Eve could fill volumes.
She did not anticipate how her decision to attend a fellowship meeting would lead her to a deepening faith in God, and to a desire to invite others into that journey. She did not know how many of the new friends she had just wished a happy Thanksgiving would still be in her life three decades later, or what triumphs and heartaches they would experience together in the coming years.
She did not realize that her own experience of finding purpose and direction as a college student would become her purpose and direction going forward.
She may have sensed that the home she was about to visit that Thanksgiving would never really be hers. She certainly did not yet recognize that Home had found her.