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You Can Never Go Home
March 24th, 2010

Home can be a slippery concept. 

The city that I now call home is not the city where I grew up.  My hometown, however, hasn’t been “home” since I graduated college ten years ago. 

This comes up because I spent last weekend visiting my parents.  My sister was also in town, but neither of our husbands joined us.  So, with the exception of one IEP (whose abilities to change the dynamics of a weekend should not be underestimated), for a couple of days we were the same family of four of my childhood.

Visiting my parents is an odd mish-mash of emotions as it relates to the concept of “home.”  They still live in the house where I spent my adolescent years.  And for several years after I moved out, going back there still felt like going home.  It felt familiar, comfortable, and still in some way mine.  It still feels comfortable and familiar, but no longer mine.  Throughout the course of the past ten years I have moved to a different place along the continuum of “home.”  It’s a strange experience to realize that home no longer feels like home.  And I’ve puzzled quite a bit over when and why this happened. 

There is the physical.  One by one, every room in my parents’ house (except the kitchen) has been redecorated since I lived there.  The coffee table in the living room that I once stabbed with a letter opener as a toddler is now in my sister’s house out West.  The lilies-of-the-valley wallpaper that I picked out for my bathroom (and which was installed upside down…) has been removed and replaced with textured green paint.  The leather couch where I did my best napping was donated to charity.  The dark mahogany pool table in the den that occupied me and my friends on many weekend evenings throughout high school has been taken down and replaced with an exquisitely arranged seating area.  The dining room, whose walls used to be covered in bold stripes, now displays a more muted floral pattern.  And so on, and so on, and so on. 

There is the temporal.  The city itself has changed since I left.  Like any city, my hometown is not a snapshot of itself.  Naturally some things are the same, but many things are different.  Restaurants open and close.  People move to new homes.  Land is developed and re-developed.  Family members move back.  Friends move away.  And so on, and so on, and so on.  A city is an organism with a pulse that beats according to the people in it.  As those people grow and change, so does the city around them.  So even if I were to move back tomorrow, I could never return to precisely the city I left, because it doesn’t exist anymore. 

There is the emotional.  I have never lived in my hometown as an adult.  When I finished school I had a strike-out-on-my-own mentality.  “I can move back there any time” I thought.  “This is the time to go explore new places.”  And so I did.  But once GAP and I had settled into our current city and built our networks of friends and colleagues, it became clear to me that my logic had been backwards.  For numerous reasons, I have understood for several years now that I will never move back to my hometown.  This was a strange realization to face.  Even stranger?  I’m okay with it. 

And most importantly, there is the issue of family.  There are many maxims about home.  (It’s where the heart is.  It’s where you hang your hat.  It’s where your dirty laundry is.)  For me, home is where my family lives.  Of course my parents and sister are my family and I love them dearly.  But they are no longer the sun around which I orbit.  My hometown no longer feels like home for a few important reasons:  GAP has never lived there.  IEP has never lived there.  My giant, ever-shedding dogs have never lived there.  For me, home is where IEP’s toys clutter the floor of our sunroom.  It is the place with the telephone table in the kitchen whose corners were once chewed by Bernese Mountain Dog puppies.  It is the place where GAP’s and my bookshelves stand opposite each other because even now we refuse to co-mingle our books.  And it is the place where nearly ten years of academic, professional, and social roots have descended into the ground.

Over time I have grown to love this city and the life we have built here.  It may not always be home, but right now it is.  I doubt I will ever feel as bonded to it as I once did to my hometown.  But ten years ago I also would have doubted that never again living there would become a perfectly comfortable path for me. 

Like cities we too, quite literally, are organisms.  We change over time; not only in our looks, tastes, and interests, but also in the way we interface with the world around us.  In many ways I am vastly different from what I was at 22.  In other ways I am exactly the same.  And I suppose that the same is true of home.  Home is now “here” instead of “there.”  But it is still the place where I live my life on good days and bad.  And it is the place where my husband and son are at my side.

9 Responses to “You Can Never Go Home”

  1. Sarah Says:

    Nope, you can never go home. Even now, this saddens me, as I kind of refuse to believe that I am all grown up, and adult, a responsible adult, WITH KIDS. It still freaks me out. And I still have vivid memories of my adolescence in my childhood home and I wonder how they really can be so far away, so long ago, when really they seem so close.

    But I’m with you, my HOME of HOMES is the one where my husband and children are. Where my own puppy chews the corners off of tables. Where the scents and sounds of toddlers have ruled my world for years now. Ahh, it is bliss. It is comfort. It is home.

  2. Eva Says:

    Home. It’s such a loaded word, and I’m so glad you’ve explored it here, Gale.

    I don’t have the same warm feelings for my parents’ home and my small hometown as you do. My childhood home, where my parents still live, is too small and cluttered and in need of repair. It is not relaxing – which I suppose makes me appreciate my own house even more. And my hometown is too small, a small town I was happy to escape from.

    My grandparents’ home was probably the place I felt most comfortable and hold dear to my heart. It was where the entire family gathered for holidays, hanging our Christmas stockings on the mantel, hunting for Easter eggs. It was where I spent many hours with my grandma, learning to embroider and bake and make jam. But now, I go back and it is not the same. It is, yet it isn’t. There is evidence everywhere of my aging, ailing grandparents. And that is heartbreaking.

    Bernese mountain dogs!! You have your hands full!

  3. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    This is such a big – and important – question. Over time, our sense of self shifts and with it, our sense of home. Once upon a time we were daughters/sisters and now we are mothers/wives. It’s not that we shed the former identities, but they become less of who we are. Home is not a place. It is a state of being. And isn’t this really what happiness is? Being home?

    Wonderful post.

  4. Dollhouses & Dreams | ivy league insecurities Says:

    [...] Writing about happiness and homes, dreams and dollhouses made me think of two posts I’ve read recently and love. And the posts are written by sisters! Check out:  [...]

  5. Anne Says:

    Great post…just now getting to it. I had that same thought when we were together this weekend…it was the 4 of us again. Plus a tiny little addition:) I struggle with this all the time. I feel incredibly at home in our home-town…and I even miss it. and then I miss the comfort of my new life “out west”, my husband, my puppies, and the landscape that’s becoming such a part of my daily life. I’ve just decided I’ll always have 2 homes.

  6. Lea Says:

    This is a concept I’ve been talking a lot about with my friends recently. “Home” is more fluid for me at this point in my life particularly because I go to school quite far away from where I grew up. Half the year, I live in a closet of an apartment in Manhattan, and the rest of the year I live with my boyfriend in a suburb of Seattle, in the same town where my parents and siblings still live, but not in the same house. My parents’ home has also been redecorated and remodeled since I’ve moved out, but it’s still the same place I grew up, and it’s strange to me to go ‘home’ to my house with my boyfriend, when ‘home’ that I’ve known much longer is less than two miles away.

    It seems like it should be easier to claim my dorms or school apartments as my true ‘home’, but for me that’s taken time. Every academic year I move, and I perpetually have new roommates with whom I share my space and my life. I hope that in a year when I graduate, I will move to a new, more permanent home with my boyfriend, and that this will give me a greater sense of security. Because I think that feeling safe and being in familiar surroundings is a huge part of me feeling ‘at home’ anywhere. Does anyone else agree that they too had problems declaring a ‘home’ during the transitional life period of college?

  7. Nicki Says:

    I spent a lot of time writing about going home last summer. It was a lot of nostalgia as I was back in my hometown for my 30th high school reunion. On top of that, I had reconnected with friends that found me back there many times in the course of eight to ten weeks after the reunion. This is not odd as I live about 20 minutes away but I had not really been there – other than to the high school for sporting events when my kids were involved – in 15 years.

    I think we can go home, just as different people than we left.

  8. Elizabeth @ Life in Pencil Says:

    Home stopped feeling like home when my mom died. For me, the people in a place have so much to do with the definition. When I go home, I don’t stay with my dad — who doesn’t have a permanent residence — but with friends, which makes this feeling of not being home more acute. I also realize when I try to go to my old favorite restaurants, long-shuttered, that home is not home. And yet, where I currently live doesn’t feel quite like home either, which makes me wonder if I’ll ever feel “at home” anywhere. It’s a very disconcerting feeling.

  9. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    Another wonderful post, Gale. I thought a lot about the idea of home over the holidays. My parents still live in the same house that I lived in growing up and that house is still what I refer to as “home,” but now, when I visit – as much as I love my parents and my brothers – the house feels too small to contain all of us and our memories. And it makes me wonder if hanging onto that place as an idea of home has made me less likely to connect to my current home, which is the place in which I’ve built my own family. (Both of my boys came home from the hospital to this house.)