Editor’s note: this is the third post in a series titled “Back Home,” in which Speakeasy writers analyze fondness or distaste for their hometowns while there for winter break.
Marietta, Ohio has always had this weird lure for me. I keep coming back to it – and I’ll probably keep coming back to it as I get older. I was born there. It’s beautiful there. With age, though, I’ve realized that it exists in its own weird dimension. It’s a dimension encased in nostalgic vision for me, sure – homey, warm red brick and chocolate-brown rivers. But it also feels like a strangely ancient place for how contemporary its problems are: an underfunded school system, the lagging tourism industry, poverty characteristic of other Appalachian towns.
The city is nestled in the beautifully strange twilight area that is state borderlines. Just a simple trip across a bridge over the Ohio and you enter into West Virginia. That relative distance is inherent in the culture of this place. Imagine a collision of Midwestern U.S. values and Appalachian cultural practices in a really pretty historic town – not at all dissimilar to Athens.
In a different time, in some sort of gently warped version of our universe, Marietta really could switch places with Athens. They’re both small-ish college towns, they both have healthy populations of crazy but good-natured townies and both towns were founded on rivers as hubs of civilization for early U.S. expansion.
Marietta is a bit older than Athens, though, lending some extra creepiness to its history. It was the United States’ first settlement in the Northwest territory – founded when some white dudes took a look at the “pretty cool” confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers and decided to plant a city on top of it. They also built forts and ran out some Native Americans, and put a cemetery over one of the giant mounds they had constructed.
Over break I’ve been living in my mom’s house, located pretty much equidistant from two of Marietta’s oldest graveyards. One is the aforementioned aptly named Mound Cemetery, the other is the sprawling Oak Grove cemetery where somebody was murdered around the same time I used to ride my bike through it as a kid. So imagine my imagination as a kid in a place like this — like, vengeful Native American spirits and murder… cemetery… ghosts? (Actually I was probably just a pretty morbid kid.)
It doesn’t help that the town looks half-dead in the quiet of the winter. Ice chunks slowly float down the river by the levee where, naturally, very few living things exist in the winter except for explosive crowds of ducks. The spring isn’t much better with its terrible floods that have threatened to drown Marietta’s downtown since its first brick was laid. That first brick, interestingly, probably lies about 3 stories underneath the surface of Marietta’s current downtown because of said flooding and the construction of new buildings above the ruins of the old.
It’s a spooky place! At the same time, Marietta is legitimately quite beautiful in its “small-historic-town-creepiness.”
I have plenty of warm memories of growing up in the place, too – damming up the water pouring down the steeply inclined street my old house used to be on. Hearing the calming, mournful cry of the trains across the valley from my bedroom window late at night while I playing my gameboy color. Adopting a whole family of kittens who had been hanging out in my neighborhood. (That last one is a big deal for me. Seriously.)
Marietta was important as an important place for my growth, but now, as an adult steeling myself for a harsh world most likely far away from there, it’s peaceful in a way. Brick streets, a charming kind-of-half-alive downtown, beautiful centuries-old churches made more beautiful when caked in snow.
I’ll remember and cherish these images as I walk underneath the shadows of skyscrapers, or when I’m packed like a sardine into an elevator going up 20 floors.
I’ll probably sigh on occasion – no ghosts lurking in manor houses nearby, no clatter of wheel over brick lulling you to sleep at night, no explosive display of fall color in the hills. The magic, the nostalgia and the memories will beckon to me wherever I am, echoing like the siren call of a barge on the Ohio.