all of the selves we Have ever been
Where is Home?
When everyone you love leaves the building, is it still Home?
I experience uneasiness when my adult children visit the house and then leave. I become keenly aware of my aloneness. I feel restless and conspicuous, a stranger in my own dwelling. I am like the lone diner holding a big table in a busy restaurant. Self-conscious and out-of-place, my mind obsesses: Everyone’s late. Will anyone come? Have they forgotten? Has something terrible happened? Should I call? How long do I wait? Should I stay? Should I go? Do I order? What if they never come?
After a day or two, I fall back into the rhythms of my daily life, but it starts all over again the next time the children visit and say goodbye.
The writer Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can’t Go Home Again. Well, you can go home, but maybe you shouldn’t, at least not when the house is no longer occupied by people you love.
A few years ago, I visited a friend in Pittsburgh. I had not been back to my childhood hometown for more than 20 years. I had not seen the family house in more than 30 years. My dear friend who understands these things offered to drive me past the home where I spent most of my childhood. I still remembered the address, and was able to navigate our way to the neighborhood even though I could not recall the name of every street we traversed to get there.
We pulled up alongside the old two-story house. It looked small and dingy. Was the yard always that tiny? How could that patch of grass have hatched so many games and adventures? How did we have room for baseball, hide-n-seek, running through the sprinkler, and chasing lightning bugs? The stocky, bright green pine trees my father planted along the driveway were now giants but they looked dark, scraggly, out-of-place, and menacing. A strong wind might bring them crashing down on the house.
I wondered, “Who lives here now?” Does the old house seem so weary to them? Or is it a “new” home to someone? Are children inside fighting over the remote and laying claim to the couch? Is there still a chain lock on the basement door that someone checks as they close up for the night? Who is sleeping in “my” room? Does wallpaper still cover the place where my feet went through the wall after I fell down the wooden steps in my stockinged feet? Is there a dad listening to talk radio in the basement workshop? Are a couple of boys out in the backyard building rocket ships out of cardboard wardrobe boxes?
We sat in the car for a few minutes. No signs of life emerged in or around the house. It was a corpse, and I felt bereft. Seeing my former home so changed seemed to be sucking the life out of me. It was time to get out of there. I can’t go back again.
I should have known better, but when I visited my cousin Marcia at her home in Cadiz she asked me if I wanted to take a drive to Adena, the family home of my mother and our maternal grandparents. It was the most magical place of my entire childhood, maybe my entire life. I had not been back for a very long time. “Let’s go,” I said.
We drove down the main street past the old office of my uncles’ coal company. Further down the street on opposite sides, the house of my Aunt Addie was inhabited by a new family I did not know. Across the street, my Uncle T’s house had gone through several transformations. It had been a doctor’s office and then a residence to someone new. Neither house was as grand as I remembered. No light or life beckoned me to enter the front door or run around back to the playhouse or the basketball court.
The real heartbreak was yet ahead. We turned onto Hanna Avenue, the yellow-brick-road of my childhood. It led to the family grocery store and to my grandmother’s house. Where there had once been a door that squeaked open and slammed shut hundreds of times a day, an empty lot greeted me. The store had been torn down years before after being used for a training exercise by the fire department. The grand, old house was standing, but barely. It leaned toward the street looking flimsy. After the passing of my grandmother and my aunts, the house was sold to a woman who planned to establish a home for elderly folks in need of care. The plan did not come to fruition, and the bank now owned the home with plans to demolish it. I longed to enter one more time, to walk the long hallway, sit down in the bright yellow kitchen, to take some kielbasa from the skillet on the stove.
But the lights were out. Not just in the house, but in my eyes. I blinked. Stared. Blinked and opened my eyes wider. Nothing. Something changed in my heart. I felt robbed. It was like being part of a black-and-white pencil sketch instead of a colorful, three-dimensional world. There was no background. No sound. Everything was vague and disappearing. The past was being erased. There is no Home to go back to.
I think of Homer’s epic tale, The Odyssey, the story of Odysseus’s journey home after the Trojan War. It took Odysseus ten years, of wandering and being tested. For seven of those years, he was in captivity, mourning and dreaming of home.
We are in the midst of a pandemic. First, it was characterized as a battle, then a storm. Perhaps, for most of us, it is the epic journey of our lives. We dream of Home—not just the shelter where we hang up our coats and lay down our heads for the night, but the place where we visit and entertain, where we freely embrace our loved ones and watch the children and grandchildren grow up. It is the place where we share hugs, kisses, and joy not germs. This holiday season, we are all dreaming of Home.
I have safe shelter, but that alone is not Home. I am reminded of the definition of Home every time my children visit and say goodbye. Wherever they are, that’s my Home.