Saturday, March 3, 2012

Home (Slice 3)

I've had a thoroughly boring day (which is to say, full of much-needed rest, watching movies on my laptop, and eating leftovers), so I went scrolling through other Day 3 slices for inspiration, and found it (thanks, Jee!). "What is home to you?"

I was snagged by this question, and it made me think of several things in quick succession. My brain is a little sludgy from the day, so I'm feeling like vignettes may be the call for this slice...

It's strange how a childhood house, even a fairly short-term one, works as a default setting for the word "home." Mine is a 3-bedroom ranch on McCann Mill Road in Pottersville, New Jersey. It was brick-red when I lived there, though it's been painted since. It's surrounded by a forsythia hedge, a wall of bright yellow for a few weeks each spring. And the yard runs down past the big tree (where Seal, our childhood mutt, was chained up in good weather), past where my mother kept the garden (the chicken wire forever bent toward the earth from the trespassing deer) to the Black River at the back. I don't remember as much of this place as I think I do, but it's filled with vignettes of its own: learning to cook and bake with my mother; discovering Seal's puppies upon coming home from Kindergarten one day; restaging the movie "Willow" in Legos with Matt in his room; my mom carrying Mewie to my bed when she (the cat) was too old to jump there. And while we only lived there a few years, that's where my brain goes when it hears the word.

When I was a junior in high school, my best friend was upset that they might be moving from the only house she'd ever known. She was crying on the phone, and apologizing to me because she knew that I'd moved a few times already, so she felt bad for mourning over something I never had. I remember not knowing how to process that. Had I never had a home? Everything else in my life seemed so up in the air then, that I couldn't really answer the question. It still nags at me every once in a while (which is, perhaps, why it caught my attention tonight).

For most of my life, my Fun Trivia Fact to share at ice breakers and cocktail parties has been that I was born in Alaska. We moved six months later, and I thus have no childhood memories of it, but it doesn't keep me from claiming it as identity-influencing. (I also spent a good deal of my fourth-grade year trying to convince my classmates that I was an Eskimo. At the time, I was certain it was true.) But in 2002, just before high school graduation, I got to go back and visit for a week. I would spend the next couple years trying (unsuccessfully) to put how it made me feel into poetry. In a word, it was a homeland, an idea I had never thought I could understand. I still can't explain it, but there was something about it that settled me. I remember sitting on the slopes of tundra in Denali, and wondering how I could be attached to earth. I still don't know.

I was just chatting with a coworker about this a couple days ago: the Eastham Public Library on Cape Cod might be my most treasured building. It is the only place I can go now that is entirely unchanged from when I was 5 years old. (This used to be my grandmother's house, but she moved and it was sold in 2004.) We went to the Cape every year of my childhood, and after a few years of separation, I'm back to visiting a few times a year. And the first time I was back, a couple years ago, I went with my uncle to the library. I didn't need anything--which is to say, I'd brought my own books--but stepping into the Children's Room, I was suddenly home (though a few feet too tall). I could see myself waiting (my mom, brother, and grandmother up in the adult stacks), happily curled up with Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories and hoping that Morris, the library's resident cat, would come by. I'm sure the place has been painted a few times, and they've probably switched from Dewey to LOC, but someone there loves me and they have, for the most part, kept with museum-like perfection my favorite room in the world.

Home is where my mother is. This has always been true for me--not just a sentimental musing, but truth. When we moved my senior year in high school, she asked after a few weeks if I felt at home yet. I answered without hesitation, and I think she thought I was just trying to make her feel better. I helped her pack and move out of that house last summer, and while it twinged a bit of nostalgia, I found that I wasn't as upset as I'd expected. A few months later, I entered for the first time and entirely recognized her new house in Iowa as home. I don't know how much of it is in my head, how much of it is tied to the stuff--the woven-bark wastebaskets and kaleidoscope candles and the smell of something recently-baked--but it's still true: after my last spring conference in Chicago this May, I'm coming home to a place I've never lived, but home it remains.


  1. I remember visiting you at the Pottersville house! I don't remember much about it except that (a) you had a Cabbage Patch doll and I was jealous and (b) we ate a meal called dinner at what I called lunch time. Strange New Jersey customs!

    1. HA then you must have been there on a Sunday--it mystified me for years how a meal could change its name for one day. And I DID have a CP doll, though I think it was lost long ago to some toy ailment. (I still have--or rather, in my mother's house somewhere is--Jeanie, my most beloved doll.)

    2. Wasn't the CP doll -- Applesauce, yes? -- the one made with the sewing store kit? Also, I dig the specification that it was not Mom who was too old to jump up on the bed...!

  2. This is a poignant, yet humorous memoir. I do hope the library doesn't change. Just think of all the other grown ups visiting it, but remembering it as part of their childhoods also.

    1. Thanks, Becky! And yes, I'm sure I'm not the only one who revisits childhood everytime they go to pick up some summer reading...