“You’re not excited to see where you were born? I’m more excited than you are!” my husband told me as we packed for a weekend trip to upstate New York last weekend.
“I have no opinion about that,” I said, like Fat Charlie the Archangel from a Paul Simon song my dad loved.
The house where I was born is still the same, only smaller. Low. Flat. White siding. Rust-red shutters. Everything gets smaller, the older we get. If “home” can be defined by longing, then there was no longing–and no home– here. That house, with the long hallways made for “piggy ball” and chasing little brothers, with the strange Victorian newsprint wallpaper in the bathroom, with the basement that smelled like basements everywhere. The basement slightly terrified me because you could see through the stairs and there was a paper Halloween witch on one of the closet doors, but once I got downstairs, I would feel reassured by the sounds of my dad’s typewriter. Whether they changed the interior or not, this house itself does not feel like home. At one time, it was all I knew. At one time, it was “ours.” Now, it doesn’t even feel like the memory of home.
We left upstate New York for Virginia when I was eight. In comparison, moving to Wisconsin at thirteen was a much harder adjustment. I have happy memories of New York, but they are childhood’s memories: watching and later acting out The Wizard of Oz with friends, learning to swim in the town pool, sharpening sticks in the backyard, which was really one big backyard that stretched the whole block and felt wild and vast.
The town also looks the same. In the forgiving light of the evening, with softly intense sunlight sneaking down at angles after a sudden downpour, the town looks quaint and adorable. In the right light, even the outskirts, the dead-fish factories, the dilapidated barns, the pick-up truck cab that’s now a planter in someone’s front yard, all look rather charming. The woods, the corn, the rolling hills have a Thoreau appeal. In a romantic mood, you can still imagine forests and Iroquois hunters dominating the Mohawk Valley, much like Cooper and Irving did (with all their “noble savage” nostalgia). But romance only goes so far. I know how much the children-of-the-corn fields viscerally perturbed my father, how the black country roads at night starred in my mother’s anxiety dreams, how many times I said “I’m bored” during the long summers. I liked it there as a kid, not because of some Norman Rockwell ideal of leaving your backdoor open, kids running loose and catching lightning bugs, and neighbors looking out for each other, but because my parents and their friends consciously created entertainment and community and culture for us. In the summers, the parents took turns teaching us to swim or sew or play baseball, according to their talents. My dad drove us to parks and old forts and the movies, making our Subaru gallop up and down winding country roads–blasting Bruce Springsteen on the radio of course– in lieu of a roller coaster.
It would seem my inherent distrust of winter— born of my respect for its inevitability– applies to memory as well. I’m not a very stalwart nomad. I never learned to shed an old land like an old season. There can be no homelessness without nostalgia. But as a homeless nostalgic, I try to make sure I’m at least being nostalgic about the right home. And home, I’ve come to find, is so much more time than it is place.
I envy people like my husband, for whom, “home” is a specific pale blue-and-yellow house with a metal door and white lace curtains that billow in the breeze in the city up a hot, slanting hill. He grew up there; his people are still there; this was the home he left when he moved to France to seek his fortune. He is greeted like a prodigal celebrity when he returns to his neighborhood, shaking hands with every neighbor on the block. I almost can’t understand what he means when he talks about missing home or being homesick. It’s so unified. So succinct. To miss your mother is the same as missing your old bed, as missing the laundry flapping on the terrace while you kick a soccer ball with your sister, as missing childhood. Or if not the same, at least they’re very close.
What I miss about upstate New York were the Friday night dinners with other families in our “Play Group,” and the creative thrill of building a stick fort or inventing a new game with other kids. I miss the immersiveness of playing dress-up as a child. I miss my love-hate relationship with the texture of our old saggy couch that gave me carpet burns. I miss how my dad used to refer to himself as a poet back then, even if it sometimes sat strangely on his tongue.
I’m not sure what my husband learned about me from seeing the house I was born in. On our last trip to Algeria, I think he started to understand the phrase “you can’t go home again,” because he recognizes how much living in America has changed him. But that cement house–that street–that city will always be his one-and-only boyhood home. My mom, who came with us, didn’t seem to be nostalgic about the old house or that time “in the slightest.” We had a great weekend. We saw old friends, visited the Baseball Hall of Fame. When I marveled at how much smaller our friend’s house appeared to me, after 25 years, my mom replied: “It’s always been a small house.”
Other houses I’ve lived in– and some that I have only visited– have felt more like home, and the impossibility of returning to other places, other times twists the knife of homesickness much more than this little white ranch house in upstate New York. Now this house is just a security question: “What’s the address of your childhood home?” As if such a thing could ever be so clear-cut! When I answer it, I always have to remember which “home” I designated, and I always curse the inventors of such questions, who obviously grew up as privileged, sheltered people who never got to move and never felt like nomads.