What makes a place feel like home? (And I am not asking for interior decorating tips!) And how long does it take?
My mother has lived where she is now for about fifteen years and I have visited for a week every year. But that house was never home to me. Even though the town was home to my grandparents and to many aunts, uncles and cousins, and I spent many holidays and summer weeks there in my childhood, it was not home except for my first three years. Of course, now it has changed so much that it doesn't bear much resemblance to the town of my memories, although our house on Willingham Road is still there and my grandparents' house is still there. Both are inhabited by strangers. I haven't been inside the house on Willingham since 1953 or in my grandparents' home since 1979.
The longest I ever lived anywhere was on Southwood Drive in Huntsville, Texas. My parents build the house and we moved into it the summer before I started first grade. I lived there all through my school years. I went off to university and my parents and brother moved into our lake house about fifteen miles south of Huntsville. They rented the house on Southwood for a year or two and then sold it around 1970. It passed through several owners, suffered a fire and finally was torn down completely. The houses on either side are still there, and people I went to school with live in them, although they did not belong to their families when I lived there. Where our house stood there is just a seven-acre lot, overgrown with trees and shrubs. I can still make out the long driveway in the Google Earth photo, but that is the only sign. (I know, I expected someone to have put up a plaque, too.)
I lived in the same dorm at Michigan State for four years, including a senior year in an apartment in the dorm building. But East Lansing was never home. I was at home on the campus, but it was not home. At that time, home was still somehow in Texas. I say somehow because I never considered the lake house to be my home, even though that had become the place I came on holidays and summer breaks from Michigan State. Huntsville was my emotional home, since my best friends still lived there and I worked there when home in the summer.
Once I entered the monastery, I transferred to a new place on average every three years. What made all those places seem like home was that I was home in the larger Carmelite community. The routine of the day would be similar, even the furnishings in my room would be similar to the other places I had been. But home took on a larger and less local meaning. Home might be in East End, Arkansas or Dallas or Washington, DC or Boston or Hubertus, Wisconsin. Any and all.
When I left the monastery and moved to my apartment in Chicago, and later into the apartment I shared with Tom, I felt at home. Chicago was a big home, with lots of places to go and things to do. I knew plenty of interesting people, learned how to work the public transportation system, knew my way around and felt safe in spite of the city's reputation for violence.
And I felt at home with Tom from the beginning. To some extent, home is where he and the cats are. We lived in the house on Berry Road almost ten years, and that was home. But I never sank deep roots. Tom's roots were already deep in that soil where members of his family had lived for over a century and a half. It was easier for me to pull up and come to Madison than it was for him. I was used to putting down shallow roots.
And here in our apartment, which I do think of as home, I still wonder about home. At some level I wonder how long we will stay here. I wonder how long the state of Tom's health will allow us to stay here. We chose this place over some others because we thought it would provide better long term possibilities, things that will make it easier for him to get around when the pulmonary fibrosis begins to manifest. That may be years down the line. It could be next year. But I don't think of us being here forever.
Home, the cliche has it, is where the heart is. My heart has been in many places physically, and much of my heart is in places I have never been -- with Steve in Nairobi, with Michelangelo in Brooklyn, with Lee in San Diego.And with some of you in places I have never seen and probably never will.
I guess home can be a very big place.
Which is not a bad thing at all.