My dear heart,
This was not the essay I intended to write today, but it’s the one that’s clearly needed, and I hope it’s okay for me to share it with people other than you because I’m hoping it will help some of them, too.
I imagine that many young people are, at this point, feeling a bit homesick. The holidays are over, and you are returning to school. While this is exciting and you are probably enjoying your renewed sense of freedom, you might be missing your bed, or your pets, your space, the ability to walk into a fully stocked kitchen and grab something out of the fridge. For those who are not, I’m actually sorry. Home is supposed to be a place of comfort, safety, joy, plenty, and peace. I would be a fool to not acknowledge that many people your age do not have that kind of home. In a way, feeling homesick is a sign of fortune. Missing home means that you have experienced a good and loving home, and that is a gift for which anyone should be grateful.
I know I am. I have always had a loving, supportive home, and the hardest part of my life was when I had to leave that home to set out on my own. So I know a little bit about how it feels.
Granted, I lived at home through college, and didn’t leave until I married your dad. Yet leaving my childhood home was hard. It was probably the hardest thing I had done in my life at that point.
I was around twenty-two years old, had just married your dad, and was getting ready to start my doctoral program in English and American Literature at New York University. Dad was starting his anesthesiology residency at Mount Sinai and we were moving into what they called “married housing”–a reduced-rent apartment on the border of East Harlem in New York City. Even with our “discount,” rent took 95% of his salary, and we were living on my teaching assistant stipend. It was worth it, though, as it was an amazing apartment. It had a two bedrooms, a functional kitchen, a dining area, a living room, a full-bath and a half-bath, a balcony, a view of the East River if you stood on the far corner of the balcony and stood on tiptoes, and a hallway full of closets. I had friends who asked, if I died, if they could get my apartment. I told them only if they married a Mount Sinai resident. I think they might have been willing.
That apartment was the first place I had ever lived in that was my own. I mean, granted, I shared it with your dad, and I populated it with furniture I totally stole from all of your grandparents (both sets of whom were moving, too), but I was pretty much in charge of the layout. I decided where to put the pots and pans; I chose the optimal couch placement. I picked the Ikea wall unit for our television. The space was mine.
At the same time, that apartment wasn’t home. I remember, after living there for more than a month, crying in the shower with the thought running over and over in my head, “I want to go home.” Your dad asked what was wrong and I told him. “But honey,” he said. “You are home. This is our home now.”
But it didn’t feel like home. It’s not that I didn’t feel safe–I was on the 11th floor of a huge building in a corner apartment in a building with a doorman. Unless someone was literally out to get me, I was not going to be a random crime victim in my apartment. I was definitely comfortable with all of the furniture purloined from your grandparents, a brand new bed, and a building where the heat and air conditioning worked pretty steadily (something not all apartments could claim). There were even times of joy, like when I bought a new blanket at Pottery Barn with my first teaching paycheck or when I used a cranberry-scented sachet in the living room and the whole apartment smelled like Christmas.
Perhaps the problem was that I didn’t feel peace. I knew my life in New York was going to be somewhat temporary. When my husband finished his training, the apartment could no longer be ours. And really, I didn’t want to raise children on the border of East Harlem where people were burning garbage in the parking lot across the street, ambulance sirens headed to two different hospitals constantly split the air, and men regularly peed on the side of my building. My apartment was not a home. It was a way-station, a temporary shelter, a nice-enough-for-now place.
That continued for years. We eventually finished our training and moved to Florida. We rented an apartment on the east coast of the state because we wanted to make sure Dad liked his job before we bought a house. The temporary feeling of that apartment was even worse than our time in Manhattan because there was no real timeline. When we moved into our first apartment we knew we’d be there for three full years. In Ft. Lauderdale, we knew we wanted to find a house (or leave town to be closer to Grandma on the West Coast) as soon as possible. I didn’t even unpack my books or set up bookshelves. Good thing, too–we moved out after only nine months.
We moved into a rental house, which was nice, but still didn’t feel like home. Because we were renting, it still felt temporary. And it was. We lived there for just about a year but then, in 2000, we found the house in which we raised you and your sister, the house where we still live today–the house you identify as home.
It’s the house I call home, as well, and it felt that way from the moment we moved in. We knew we were going to put down roots in this town, in this neighborhood, in this part of the state–and this house allowed us to do that. It had a master bedroom for me and dad, and three rooms with two bathrooms on the other side of the house. They started as two guest rooms and–believe it or not–an exercise room. They eventually became your room, your sister’s room, and the guest room that was mostly occupied by your grandfather.
I know it is the only home you’ve ever known. Dad and I tried to create a space for you and your sister–and for ourselves–that was exactly like the homes we’d grown in. A place of permanence, safety, peace, joy, love, and comfort. I’d say perhaps we did our jobs too well, but the truth is that we couldn’t have done any more or any less. No matter what we did, you’d still be feeling the way you feel now. And I hate to tell you, but you will probably feel this way for quite a long time.
It wasn’t until I moved into what you know as “our house” that I felt a sense of home. It took five years to find that place. For you, it might take longer, and that’s okay. You are in a transitional stage now, a liminal space: in between adolescence and adulthood, in-between homes, in-between lives.
College dorm life is, in a real sense, a halfway house. You are ready to leave the safety of home, but not quite ready to create a home of your own. So you get little tastes of home. You have some pots and pans you can cook meals with in the communal kitchen. You have a pet fish. You have a door that closes, but you still have to share a room. You have the freedom to come and go as you please without having to answer the questions, “Where are you going? When will you be back? Who are you going with?”
People always say that with freedom comes responsibility, and that’s true. But in my teens and twenties I found that with freedom came a feeling of transience. Not homelessness in the sense of not having shelter, but in the sense of not having a stable home-base. Of always knowing that where I was and what I was doing was temporary. It was lovely in a way, to always know there was something else on the horizon. It was also incredibly scary, and oftentimes very sad. But it was also just a stage. And now I’ve been living in the same house for over 20 years, a house that I have made our home.
One day, though, this house is going to be “Mom and Dad’s house,” not your house. I mean, to me, it will always be your house. You will always have a home here. Yet one day, you will be at our house, and you will get up and say, “I’m headed home,” and it will not be this house. It will be your house, your home, your space. And it will be glorious and amazing and so fulfilling because you will still have this memory of this homesickness, of this feeling in-between and not-fully-a-part, and you will revel in not feeling that way any more. You will have left the nest and made your way and found your people and your place and you will, my love, be so very happy. At least, that is my prayer for you. More joy than sorrow. More success than failure. More permanence than transience. And finally, a true sense of home.