The Evolution of Home

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.

Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone

I have to decide what to do with my grandfather’s military uniform jackets. When he passed away several years ago, my grandmother hesitated about giving them to Goodwill,  so I asked for them. I knew he valued the wool jackets with worn patches. They were to him what a wedding dress is for a woman – a barometer of youth and golden days. He was so proud that he could fit into them after a grandma-induced diet,  that he modeled them for me whenever I visited.

My grandfather was an old-fashioned gentleman, born into a Midwestern upper middle class family with all the sensibilities and prejudices that came of the time. He was kind to his family, though, tolerating a monsoon of estrogen and talk about “feelings”.  I think he was relieved when I got married, if only to have one more player for the men’s team.

For many years, he was a book salesman, traveling all over the Midwest. He told funny stories with enthusiasm and wonderful accents. He loved to tell jokes. After I joined the Army, he was relieved that he finally had someone to talk to about his military experience. He’d tell anecdotes from his stints in the Navy and the Army, about customers he’d met on the road and about an idyllic childhood in Illinois.

Big band music was his bailiwick. He would make tapes of the music he loved, recording himself as the DJ in between songs.  Standing in the kitchen with his finger near the pause and rewind buttons, he’d say, “Listen to this part, kiddo.” He wanted me to hear what he heard, to not miss a trumpet solo or drum flourish. When I was younger, I learned to play Glenn Miller, Hoagy Carmichael and Tommy Dorsey on my flute (small band music!) and we’d play “Name that Tune”.

My grandfather also helped me learn the value of civility and respect. He was from a different time – we argued about women in combat, gay rights, economic and foreign policy, exchanging several long and heated letters over the years about our beliefs. It never changed our regard for each other. It was never nasty or mean or irretrievably damaging to our relationship. It was okay to disagree and still like each other.

I grew up abandoned by a father and living in fear of an alcoholic stepfather. My grandfather was there, walking me down the aisle when I got married and then years later,  listening to my talkative toddler while she sat on his lap. In a family where men have not come off well, my grandfather was the guy who redeemed them all.

I mourn him now more than ever. My family of origin is extraordinarily private, insular and can be counted on one hand. There was no memorial or celebration of my grandfather’s life. There was no way for me to say goodbye or shed tears. One day he was just gone, with nary a whisper in the universe.

It is human nature to want to leave an indelible mark, to pass on a part of ourselves – to know that we mattered. Sometimes this is what drives us to have children, to work so hard at a career or even to write a blog. Most of us will never pass this way again and only live on in the memories and hearts of the people who loved us.

In a family as fractured as mine, so many memories have been forever lost. There are some memories no one wants to retain, but in the case of my grandpa, I will be his standard bearer. I will write about him, tell my daughter the jokes and stories, keep records, do my best to be a caretaker of the things that were important to him. He mattered in a way that all good people should. Not loudly, but immeasurably.

His tumbledown end began with one stroke followed by another. One of our last phone calls ended abruptly, as I began to cry while he struggled to speak, an effort that surely exhausted him. I miss his stories, even though I heard them a hundred times. I miss his presence in the world. The music he loved so much will remain on my playlist and I will hear him saying “listen to this, kiddo”.

For now, I’ll carefully store his jackets, so that someday, someone else will have to wonder what to do with them and recall the stories and music and that he was loved by me. And the beat goes on.