Away from home, we miss its intimacy and so we look for another version of it; perhaps we remake it into the place where we once were gladly fastened to the whirling planet.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, forcibly exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974, settled in the mountains surrounding Cavendish, Vermont in a house set among birch trees; they “reminded him of Russia.”* Cut off from his language and friends, from the all sustaining daily life of his native country, he made a new home here for 18 years. He wrote from six in the morning to late at night; he called these years “the happiest” of his life.* If Rus would not have him, he would make it up as best he could.
For years, the Veteran ** drove a slow, wide loop around our neighborhood. If he saw you in your yard, he turned into the driveway, pulled himself out of the car and leaned against the driver’s side door for a chat. This loop drew a line around his more expansive home, his topography, known and habitual. He would tell me who he had seen and talked to and describe the news of the neighborhood and the animals that had crossed his path.
For some though, nothing fond or sentimental remains in their memories of home. We all know those who have fled their birthplace the way we might run from a fire in a field. Threatened with encirclement, we look for any way out. I met a woman in Montana, an owner of a book store, who still spoke with an Appalachian twang and who said that though born and raised in West Virginia, she had escaped it decades before because she never felt right at the bottom of hollows among “all those trees.” When she walked out her back door here, she experienced a sense of “relief” because the sky “never got lost.”
I taught too many students who bore tyrants for parents and who dreamed of the moment when they could leave. I remember an acute sense of loss in almost all of them – a mournful regret for what had not occurred, for what they had missed. I thought that some of them might spend their lives looking for the home that had been promised them, that warm shelter that is presumed to stand in opposition to the dark and cold.
Home remains a potent American myth, the center around which we were supposed to grow into the men and women we were meant to become, as if the house, the neighborhood, and the parents and friends who made up our rippling circles were immune to a relentless History, a bitter aging, to envy and failure. Our child-selves are most likely to remember home as a place at the cheerful center of the world, where everything else revolved around … me … you… the singular ‘I’ of a child’s consciousness. In retrospect, many more of us than we imagine were actually like the boy on the end of the whip-line on the playground, holding on, anticipating the crack of centrifugal force to throw him off and whirl him into the distance. The homes of our earlier years often look better viewed from the perspective of a more understanding maturity when we’ve figured out that everything is in flux and always has been.
I don’t think the itch to find some way back to that center ever leaves us. We want to be clasped to another’s heart and life somewhere solid. We want to build bulwarks behind which we can safely rest.
And thus some of us also create fanciful homes pulled from maps and others’ stories, corners where we think we might be happier, perhaps even ecstatic – maybe Manhattan, with lots of dollars in one’s pocket, and acres of plays and museums to fall into with the one we love, or let’s say a cabin in a deep, empty draw in Ramsey County in North Dakota, one more soul among the 11,452 residents who awaken each morning to a galactic sense of space and wind, or maybe in a cottage on the sound in Ullapool, in the Scottish Highlands, a clandestine hideaway from the tumultuous and jagged rhythms of a frenetic life.
Home never lets go. I can remember every apartment, house and room in which I lived for more than a month. The mice were so thick in one rented farmhouse that the traps I set in the kitchen would begin snapping shut as soon as I clicked off the lights and walked into the living room. One crkk and squeak rapidly followed another. But my wife and I could also sit under the cedars out back in the spring and watch the swallows dip in and out of the ruined barn.
On Thanksgiving, more than any other holiday, we align our instinct toward home. A year or so ago I parked up the street from our old house in West Lawn where I had lived from ages 9 to 21 and where Thanksgiving after Thanksgiving unrolled seamlessly. I watched the spirits arrive – my maternal aunts tottering up the steps, their smiles so wide every time they saw us as if they had just discovered the chemical formula for joy; nieces and nephews, running and shouting, vying with each other to be the first to greet their grandparents. On that day this modest ½ double in West Lawn, where all of us had gathered around the dining room table, lovingly gripped us to the surface of the earth.
We leave one home in order to create another, and therefore loss is a permanent state, but one that we must not allow to incapacitate us. Each rising day also brings the possibility of renewal. If we have been free of want and fear and are lucky enough to live close to those we love, then we can take joy in those landscapes where we now dwell. So, year after year let us resolve to do this — turn on all the lights. Spread the food on the table. Stand on the stoop with our arms spread in welcome, and smile out at the open faces of those who have come to help us make our houses into homes.
** The Veteran flew over 25 missions into Germany as a B-17 tail gunner.