If I say I’m going home after a slew of errands, I’m perfectly clear about where I’m headed: my little three-bedroom house with a yard the size of a playing card. But when prompted with the word “home”, I feel directionless, without route or destination. In the bigger picture, for most of my life, I suppose that “home” has been my family’s house in eastern Pennsylvania. Even though at some time during young adulthood I asserted to my parents, “This isn’t my home! Boston is my home now!” that was the place. The big womb. The X where gravity ended.
But that house is gone, now—gone, anyway, from my family universe like a star that has melted into darkness. I can’t quite separate the selling of that house from the decline of my parents and, finally, the death of my mom. I’m not homeless, though. I still have my own house in Vermont; in fact I’ve now lived here longer than I’ve lived in any of my other homes. And yet when the family home was sold in a panicked rush--so that we each had only one shot at grabbing whatever we wanted to salvage, as if we were contestants on a game show—I chose not to, or I forgot to, take things that I now miss: the doll dresses worn by my Shirley Temple doll that I would like to have hung on my bedroom wall; my mom’s ceramic mixing bowls; a carry-on suitcase. It was all hauled away in a big truck, sorted by hands that didn’t sense the softness of my mom’s sweaters or the smoothness of my dad’s belts. The hollowed out house is now inhabited by strangers.
These days, when I visit my father, who lives in a nursing home, I stay with a friend usually, or with one of my siblings. But during those visits, my feet never seem to touch ground. Where is the kitchen, my mother nervously preparing a dish that she worries will be too dry or not seasoned enough? What has become of the pink bathroom that seemed stopped in time way back in the sixties? Probably the new owners have gutted it and only pink shards remain, buried morsels to be some day unearthed by an archaeologist.
While some can claim to have more than one home—summer homes in warmer climates or vacation homes abroad—others have none. Two or three times a month, I volunteer for the local organization that serves the homeless in my community. Never once do I leave there any less than overwhelmed with gratitude that I don’t have to worry every day about where I’ll stash my stuff, where I’ll bathe, where I’ll lay my head that night. I can barely conceive of living in such circumstances. I have been compelled to think about a different sort of homelessness, too, after my experience teaching refugees: to be worlds away from the place that is home; to escape with just fragments of family; to hold onto no more than a language and customs, which often become impediments to creating a new home in a strange land.
Certainly I have lived in places that didn’t feel like home to me—after all, isn’t a home less a particular place than a relationship with that place, an attachment? Most of us release a little sigh—a good sigh--when we say the word “home”. Home with a capital “H”, not just the location where we plunk down our bag of groceries. But like all relationships, the relationship with a home can end. Even an attachment to a cardboard lean-to or the cold, hard ground can be forcibly terminated when the occupant is chased away by police or driven south by the weather.
My living situation seems so much more secure than the fragile stopping points of people banished from their homes by war, or by hunger and drought, and yet I know that no one is invulnerable to homelessness. I lost my home with the pink-bathroom, the kitchen, the fretful mother but am fortunate to have another. If any of us wants a guarantee of never being without a home or, better yet, of always feeling at home, we ought to start forming some kind of meaningful attachment to this great big world, the sky above us, the immovable earth below, and hope and pray that this, our biggest, most durable home won’t be snatched away from us and that we are the best tenants we can possibly be.
Susan V. Weiss lives in Burlington, Vermont, where she writes and teaches. Her novel will be published this September by Fomite. (Available through http://www.fomitepress.com/ or Amazon.com.) Check out Susan's website and blog: http://www.susanvweiss.com/.