For a contingent of American culture, November and December are months of homecoming. Families gather together for Thanksgiving, for Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. It’s in the light of this holiday season that my thoughts turn towards the concept of home, and what it means to me.
Home is an entirely subjective concept, compounded of life experience and personal needs. In the case of my exceedingly large maternal connection, an amalgamation of Thanksgiving and Christmas is scheduled on a weekend, in competition with neither the in-laws’ plans, nor shotgun deer season. While ‘home’ under that definition at one point was the family farm, it’s now the people and the foods of family mythology. This family gathers at a rented facility and celebrates a homecoming in news, stories, mandarin orange jello salad, cheesy potatoes and cherry cheesecake bars.
I write about it with nostalgia, but not from immediate memory. Years passed, I exited childhood; ideological differences turned into awkward silence and distance. A certain unwillingness to have hard, real conversations, or seek one another outside the confines of what we all seem to see as a mandatory annual duty. We aren’t all this way, of course, but even the peacemakers among us quietly drew away into agreeable corners, preferring safety with a few to the danger of scooping out corn casserole at the table opposite the bleeding-heart liberal, the conspiracy theorist, the cultish Christian, the hippie outsider girlfriend, the alcoholic, the emotionally fragile new divorcee (and the equally emotionally fragile children threrof).
I say this all with a desire to change that, and an uncertainty of how to go about it. In this scenario, I’m the bleeding-heart liberal with the weird job. My questions are always answered, but it’s with surprise and an air of disinterest and suspicion – like how could I possibly care about their lives, with my white collar office job and my art studio? I feel like I’ve become part of the culture they disapprove of. When I chose a life in a metropolitan city over gravel roads and pastures, those doors of welcome home began to creak shut. They’re polite, and they do love me at least in the abstract, but they have never given me a sense of home.
Since I left my parents’ three-bedroom red rancher on the fringe of a rural township, I haven’t qualified anything as ‘home.’ Does home happen when you stop hiding your laptop on the closet shelf before you leave for work in the morning? When you buy your first couch? When you come back to it after a long absence? When others come to share a meal with you at your table? Do you need a housewarming party?
When I would talk about where I lived, it was ‘the apartment,’ or ‘my apartment.’ My mom’s house – my childhood house – was still ‘home.’ When I struggled with anxiety and depression, when I needed to heal, my apartment was my foxhole. But not home. And why not? I celebrated Christmases there. I welcomed people I would come to love, danced in the living room; perched with my elbows on the windowsill, listening to the raucous bar down the alley. But not home. Once a month, I was reminded that someone else granted me the space, in the rent checks I paid and the note announcing the pest person making his rounds, whose entrance I could not refuse. Every season, my windows needed to be changed out, my fire extinguishers inspected, and every two years the city apartment inspector would arrive to critique the cat hair on my rug.
I had no permanence. Apartments are transient – they’re cubbies that bear our name on a sticker, for a while, so long as we’re not too loud or too smelly and we take our garbage out every week and our neighbors aren’t allergic to cats.
‘Home,’ to me, is a sense of something being there when I get back. Not necessarily ownership (although ownership does lend itself), but an understanding that the space is recognized as my territory and other human beings can reasonably be expected to stay out until I invite them in.
In October of last year, I bought a house. Over one year later now, when I talk about ‘home,’ it’s this house. It’s a quirky place, old and worn in spots. Not modern enough for some. But I have doors that lock and latch and bolt and I choose who else has access. The walls will be what colors I choose; the carpet will come up when I have the wherewithal for new wood floors. The windows will open to the air in the middle of December if I overheat the kitchen. There is space for all of me and more. The Christmas tree this year will be real.
I am responsible for my own spiders; my own fire extinguishers; my own cat hair on my own rug. Home may be subject to the critique of others, but nobody’s opinion matters except mine. Home may just be an elaborate illusion of control, overlaid with pleasant memories – but I can’t say I mind.