BELONGING

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I’m sitting on an outdoor patio at a pizza joint overlooking the ocean in southeastern Connecticut. Sun-tanned pedestrians pass by in flip flops and tank tops. My wife and children are with me. We’re waiting for Susette Kelo to arrive for dinner.

The public knows Susette as the Kelo in Kelo v New London, the infamous Supreme Court decision that upheld a local government’s power to seize homes and bulldoze a neighborhood. But we know her as a treasured family friend who hates the spotlight.

A smile sweeps across Susette’s face and tears form in her eyes the moment she sees us. One by one she hugs Lydia and our children. Then she puts her arms around me. “I’m so glad you guys are home,” she says. “You belong here.”

Everyone longs to belong. After an exhausting summer spent moving from Virginia to Connecticut, we are finally starting to settle in. In between bites of antipasto salad, mozzarella pizza, and fried clam strips, I take in the moment. Does life get any better than this?

An hour later we enter the local library. It’s packed with familiar faces. Friends that attended grammar school with me. Guys I used to play ball with. Old neighbors. School teachers. The town clerk. Volunteers that worked on my campaign for U.S. Congress in 2001. The doctor who delivered our daughter Maggie. Folks from the Mormon congregation where I was baptized as a boy.

There are so many people that the library staff has to put people on folding chairs in the hallway outside the special events room. I grew up in this town, and tonight it feels as familiar as my wife’s hand.

When Judy Liscov stands to introduce me, I think of how many times she’s introduced me during my career. Judy has been organizing author events at the library for as long as I can remember. She has always treated me like a son. Next month she’s retiring and moving to Arizona. Tonight is her last event. I want it to be a memorable one.

 JUDY, JEFF, AND LYDIA JUDY, JEFF, AND LYDIA

I start my presentation by talking about Steve Young’s forthcoming autobiography.

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It’s unusual to discuss a book before it’s out. But Steve’s will be in bookstores everywhere on October 11th, and it’s available now for pre-order on Amazon.

More to the point, I’m in my hometown and Steve grew up a little over an hour from here. Some of my favorite chapters to write were the ones covering his childhood and adolescent years in Connecticut. We didn’t know each other back then, but that’s when I started to admire him. He was four years ahead of me in school. Like me, he was the only Mormon boy in his high school. When he became an All-American in college and nearly won the Heisman, I felt more confident about who I was and where I was going in life.

I shared this background with the audience and publicly expressed my gratitude for the privilege of working with Steve. Then the lights dimmed and I showed this trailer from the film “Steve Young: A Football Life.”

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The film is based on Steve’s autobiography and I had the privilege of working on it with filmmaker Chris Barlow and his talented team at NFL Films.

 Chris Barlow, center, filming Steve Young in San Francisco. Chris Barlow, center, filming Steve Young in San Francisco.

It will air on the NFL Network days before the book is released. The library audience literally cheered at the end of the trailer. It felt like the entire room had been transported back to Candlestick Park in the nineties.

Next I pivoted to the forthcoming motion picture “Little Pink House.” Director Courtney Balaker agreed to let me show the trailer publicly for the first time. The moment Catherine Keener appears on screen and says: “I’m Susette Kelo,” electricity shoots through the library. This is going to be big!

But I wonder what Susette is thinking. It’s her first time seeing the trailer. Imagine seeing yourself being played by an actor on a big screen. Surreal.

As the audience watches the movie trailer, I watch the audience. I love the way books and movies bring an immense sense of pride to the local community where stories are set.

People clap. People cheer.

It’s humbling when I consider where I’ve come from and how much writing has enriched my life.

After the trailer, I face the audience. “Is my English teacher here?”

Mrs. June Hoye raises her hand. She receives a well-deserved ovation. I publicly thank her for being a superb high school English teacher. To this day she still sends me emails when I make a grammatical error in a blog post. (Never mind that I typically write blogs posts when I’m traveling – I’m writing this one on a train.) I love that about her. It shows how much she cares about me and about sound writing.

My high school English teacher June Hoye.My high school English teacher June Hoye.

I have one more surprise for the hometown crowd. Shortly after filming for “Little Pink House” concluded back in the winter, I reached out to musician David Crosby and asked if he’d consider composing the theme song. The budget for the film had been spent at that point. I told him that up front.

“Let’s not worry about money right now,” he told me. “Let’s first see if I can write a song.”

The truth is that David has been on a roll lately when it comes to songwriting. It didn’t take long before he emailed me some lyrics. They read like poetry. I told him so. “Then I’ll keep going,” he said.

 Courtney Balaker (left), the Director of “Little Pink House,” Lydia, me, and David Crosby. Courtney Balaker (left), the Director of “Little Pink House,” Lydia, me, and David Crosby.

Eventually he sent me a rough cut. I’ve always said that you know a song is exceptional when you fall in love with it the first time you hear it. I got chills the first time I heard what he had composed for the movie.

With David’s permission, I played his theme song for my hometown friends at Waterford Library. People were mesmerized. It was as if David Crosby had entered the room.

 The audience listening to David Crosby’s song from “Little Pink House” at Waterford Library. The audience listening to David Crosby’s song from “Little Pink House” at Waterford Library.

After the song, I take questions from the audience. A woman in the front row raises her hand and asks: “Does 132 Shore Road mean anything to you?”

I can’t help wondering if this is a trick question. “Yes,” I say. “That’s the address of the house I grew up in.”

The woman explains that she bought my childhood home from my parents over 20 years ago. Over the years, she said, she had followed my career and been so proud.

Suddenly she is overcome with emotion. Wiping the tears from her eyes, she invites me to bring my family back to Shore Road and visit my boyhood home. All these years she had treated the house with tender care because I used to live there.

Suddenly I am struggling to keep my composure. Everything is coming full circle. The memory of being a high school senior and watching television on the living room couch in 1983 when Steve Young caught the touchdown pass to beat Missouri on the final play of Holiday Bowl enters my mind.

“I loved that house,” I tell her, my voice cracking. “Growing up there I never imagined what I’d become. The invitation to go back is the ultimate gift. Of course I’ll come.”

“But you have to give me time to dust it first,” she says.

The audience laughs.

“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that,” I tell her. “We never dusted.”

The audience laughs even harder.

The questions keep coming. An hour passes by as if it were a minute. It’s tme for me to sign books. I say I’ll take one last question. A woman asks: “Will Susette sign copies of Little Pink House?”

“Let’s find out,” I say. “Susette, will you join me?”

Emerging from the back row, the real star of the show takes her place beside me at the table. A line forms. While Susette signs books, I get hugs and kisses from many Greek and Italian women who remember when I was a boy.

Signing books at Waterford Library with Susette Kelo.Signing books at Waterford Library with Susette Kelo.

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