As an expat, home is a word I use loosely. Home is where my husband and my boys and I have dinner every evening, where we drool on our pillows, where we fight and dream, love and argue. In that sense, home is anywhere from post code 2900 Hellerup to a bathroom-less hut on the beach in the Karpaz to a random hotel room. In this case I am using home as the closest approximation of a ‘home base’ that we have; that is, the house I grew up in. Today my boys will go and play outside in the backyard I played in as a girl with my sister, where she and I used to commandeer my father’s saw horses and play How the West Was Won. Our covered wagon–the shed–ambled across the Great Plains while we sat in imaginary bonnets from the great height of our lawn chair perch. Every so often we fended off an Indian attack while we made our way west toward a better life, Snickers and Milkyway in the lead. The shed still stands and the saw horses are in the basement, but my own children are more likely to skip the ambling and imaginary enemy and instead attack each other with Nerf water weaponry.
It’s a strange feeling of in between-ness, a shade of gray: visiting home, coming home, being home. Though there are larger chunks of my identity that are embedded elsewhere, this is my origin, where I feel the most grounded, the soil in which all my memories and my sense of self first took root. While I am visiting, I sleep in my bedroom, the one I had for the duration of my time in this house, though it belonged to my sister once I left home and to my father in the last months of his life. I sleep under a ceiling too low to contain all those long-ago crushes, those teenage yearnings, those phone conversations laying on the floor with my feet propped up on the door frame, a coiled phone cord stretched to its limit.
This room has been witness to so much: fevered day-dreams, late night cram sessions, mid afternoon naps with my head in a pool of sunshine that hit the bottom, right corner of my bed at the perfect time. Tears and nerves and flutters. I broke up with JP in this room, sitting at my desk over there in the corner, solemnly taking off his class ring before I made the phone call. It seemed only fair. Today I will listen to the neighborhood noises, different, but the same. There aren’t as many children, they are grown now, even the children of the kids I grew up with are grown now. But my children will hear the splashes of the neighbors in the pool when they get home from school and go over and start their own summer break with a cannonball. It has been a year since they have seen their summer friends, but they pick up as if it was last week. Miles and days and inches grown all swept under the grass while they slot back into their July roles.
A house is not necessarily a home, my own moves have taught me that. A house is merely a shell for what goes inside of it, where the real home is created. But this particular shell, the one I come back to year after year contains so much of myself that at times it is unbearable. I can tell you details and stories about each and every room. The Tiger Beat posters torn out and taped to my bedroom wall, sitting with my back to the wood stove in the family room, the silver foil and yellow flower wallpaper in the kitchen. Christmas mornings in the living room, Sunday dinners with manicotti or mashed potato pie in the dining room, the roil and roll of my parents’ water bed, the smell of freshly cut lawn that sent my allergies into overdrive.
There is a basement where my sister and I played school and house and put on dance recitals. I had my first co-ed party down there, where we played spin the bottle with a two litre bottle of 7-Up. I remember who I wanted to kiss that humid night, as well as the boy who kissed me instead, the way his lips felt on mine, the weight of his tongue probing my mouth. My parents had parties down there, back before it smelled of long forgotten things packed in cardboard boxes. Trophies and awards, letters, school papers, boxes of teenage poetry. It has its own unique eau du basement now, so much so that sometimes my boys catch a random whiff of something slightly moldering, slightly damp and they will mention it smells like Nonna’s basement. In its heyday, it was a refuge–a place to get away from August heat and from February snow.
I can tell you about a Weeble track at the bottom of my sister’s closet, the railroad ties and chains that used to frame the front yard. There was maple tree that came down during a hurricane in the 80s and the tree in the back with the little leaves we used to pull off in bunches and pretend it was money. So many images and recollections and sensations at my fingertips.
My children are growing up in a new time, in a new place. They of course will have their own memories of the homes we have lived in, the places we have lived. Sometimes I worry that their memories won’t have the same permanence as mine, won’t weigh the same because they’ve been moved around so much, that their sense of self won’t have the time to settle in and take root. That is ridiculous of course, it is the experience that makes the memory, not the room, not the roof, or the post address.
Still, as I sit here this morning, awake at some unGodly hour due to jet lag, typing in the room that holds so many of my secrets, I wonder.
What does going home mean to you?