Ryan Lee

Ryan Lee: Home away from home

I’m in Chicago for my annual visit with family, and this year for the specific purpose of celebrating my maternal grandmother’s 90th birthday. I suggested a party and brunch for her birthday weekend because I thought it was important to honor her and I missed the family gatherings that were such a happy part of my childhood, but I soon appreciated why my family hasn’t had any functions in more than a decade.

There haven’t been any reality TV-level blowups or drama yet, but the party is still five days away. Most unfortunately, there’s been unnecessary angst for my grandmother as she tries to keep her celebration a minimalist affair, both in terms of guest list and menu.

She’s obsessed with keeping costs down, since my cousin and I agreed to pay for catering and decorations (I originally envisioned all five grandchildren splitting expenses, but three won’t be attending). We’ll be dining on cold cut sandwiches and chips, and missing folks who I always assumed were family because they were at every holiday or celebration we had when I was younger.

“It’s your party, grandma, and whatever makes you happy is what I want,” I recently told her while we were planning over the phone. “But I don’t want you to feel like you have to pare things down because you don’t want to be a burden to me and Lance. We’re adults, grandma.

“We’ll always be your little grandsons, but I am 35 years old, and I understand the expenses of doing something like this, and it’s something that we want, and can, do for you,” I said, gaining concessions on the guest list but the menu remains festively restrained.

Since that conversation, I’ve turned 36, and it dawns on me that I’m approaching the day when I will have lived outside of my hometown longer than I lived there. I left Chicago when I was 18, and remember missing the city – its hustle and exalted skyline, its grit and chaotic streets – as much as I missed my friends and family.

My family remains here, and I still feel the South Side of Chicago coursing through my veins, calcifying in my bones and shaping the way I understand and interact with the world. It still feels like home when I visit, both the parts of the city I enjoy and the things that keep me away, and so I’m also reminded that I am a visitor, and will soon have been a visitor for longer than I was a resident.

I’m not renouncing my birthplace, and even if I were, there is no cure for being a Chicagoan. But the city has become my most frequent vacation destination, and a place where I’m aware that I’m away from home.

The Georgia Voice celebrates some of the best parts of our hometown in this issue, and many of the honorees kindle my love for Atlanta. The best parts of the city for me have been growing into adulthood; the long-term friends and pilgrims who simply passed through the gay mecca; the romance and sex that have enlightened and bewildered me; the MARTA crushes and bumping into your MARTA driver at the club; the wimpy snow days and sitting under the ceiling fan in the screened-in dining room at Woody’s Cheesesteaks on a hot summer day.

Still, it’s an uneasy part of adulthood to be with family while missing home.