My fantasy as a child was to have a house that was all mine, where I was safe and where all the other children and animals who needed homes would live as well (it was going to be a very, very big house). It would be a long time before I could claim that some part of my wishful thinking had become reality. It wasn’t until my early 30s that I lived in a house with a yard that I owned (with my much better half). Before that time, I lived in 7 rental properties, 9 barracks, an old school bus and a gas station undergoing a home conversion, with gas pumps as part of the landscaping.
During my elementary and middle school years, I lived in a converted office space above a main street tavern in a small town. I shared the irregular rooms with my 3 siblings and mother and stepfather. On any given night, we could look off the porch into the alley and see misdemeanors in the form of public urination. The best place to be was wherever home wasn’t – at the park, at a friend’s house and my personal hideout, in the stacks at the public library. Whether it was the close quarters or the alcoholism or sheer dysfunction, home did not feel safe. I learned to pack light. I would compulsively do an inventory of the paltry, but sentimental items that were mine and I would always know where they were in case I had to leave on a moment’s notice – a practice put to the test in conjunction with calls to the police.
Resourceful kids are made, not born. I sought my own shelter. There were the friends’ homes with the parents that seemed too good to be true, work where the restaurant owners took me under their wing, a bike that kept me in motion and a zillion extra curricular school activities. If I look at my high school yearbook, I don’t look like the shy and awkward nobody that I imagined I was. I was in track, speech, band, choir, school plays and musicals, and editor on both the newspaper and the yearbook. I wasn’t a social butterfly or civic-minded. I was seeking places where I could feel at home and be safe.
The ability to create my own safe haven has served me well over the years. I am an expert at packing and unpacking. I can travel light, which served me well in the military. I knew how to let go of possessions that were not important. The 12 years I’ve lived in this house in suburbia is the longest period of time I’ve spent in one place. I feel very fortunate to be able to live in a house, but I still live as if I’m ready to run. My possessions are centralized in one room, with my necessities in another. I still carry a shower bag, as if I’m living in a barracks. I’m territorial and defensive about the space I claim. My husband, who always had his own bedroom and spent his entire childhood in the same home, occasionally needs to remind me that certain rooms are “ours”.
I have had a lot of time to think about what having a home means and it has nothing to do with yards or ownership or age and everything to do with the feeling when you walk in the door – a sigh of relief, a deep exhale, a relaxing of tight shoulders, the dropping of bags, backpacks, luggage. It is sanctuary, an unburdening of the mind and body. I do not take it for granted, but I no longer lay awake at night, wondering if I’ll be living somewhere else tomorrow. While it is true that the only constant in life is change, I know what it means to be home and how to create that feeling anywhere I go. It’s the proverbial lemonade from living a life in motion.