Out of the handful of places that I have lived, only a select few have been home.
The first home was a single family house at the end of a cul-de-sac backed by the woods of southern Maine. It was on those hardwood floors that I took my first steps, that I spoke my first words, and that the first memories of my childhood were made. Memories of how the sun felt on my face as it shone through the skylight in my room. Or, the sound of my great-grandmother laughing as she tried to crack open a hard-shelled lobster. I remember how, in failed attempts at getting me to fall asleep for a nap, my parents would drive around the forgotten winding backwoods routes of Maine. We would sometimes find ourselves at a wild blueberry patch instead. My parents would diligently pick the berries as I plopped the little morsels into my mouth until it was stained the same dark violet of the berries. In the fall, I would jump into the neat pile of leaves that my father had just spent half the day raking up. And once, in an ice storm, the power was out for so long that the seldom used fireplace became our source of warmth and sustenance.
Now, as I complete the latest of the dozen or so moves that have spanned my life, I’m nostalgic for the memories of those past homes. I find myself reminiscing about floor plans, arm chairs that are no longer with us, and of backyard birthday parties. These memories reproduce themselves in my mind like movie shorts played before a featured film— glimpses of a larger story but, packed with just as much emotion. Rather than just accepting the new address, I started to wonder what had made the other empty shells of houses into homes—and what the crucial elements are that will either make this next place a home or just another place I will have lived.
The first floor apartment in Arlington was the second place I called home. I had my very first day at my first school. I made my first friends. I rode a bicycle for the first time. In Arlington, I walked two blocks one way to get to school during the week, and two blocks the other way to get to the neighborhood park on the weekends. Sometimes, my father and I would ride up the bike path to Alewife Station and take the Red Line to Harvard Square on Saturdays. He’d show me the comic book stores he went to as a kid and where to find the best slice of pizza. I was happy. But most importantly, I was comfortable. All the threads of my life— my friends, family, and belongings—were all woven together and formed a blanket of comfort. My blanket eased me to sleep when I had nightmares and kept me warm on cold winter days. That is, until one day, my parents told me we were moving. Not to another part of town, either, but to a new house, in a new place, far away from the perfectly blocked-out streets of Arlington.
I remember pulling into the driveway for the first time. I had never lived by the ocean before, and the idea of getting to enjoy all of Gloucester’s beaches excited me. But, as we turned onto the pot-hole ridden street, my anticipation disappeared. I looked up at the shabby brown house, the gloomy November day making the already dreary-looking house even gloomier. I thought it could never be home. There was no neighborhood park down the street and my best friend now lived half an hour away instead of just a stone throw. The blanket that had kept me comfortable and cozy in Arlington had begun to unravel— the threads following our trail from Arlington, up Route 128, to Gloucester.
I didn’t get to see my friends from Arlington as often, and soon, we completely lost touch. My new bedroom was smaller, but the sun shone through the windows just as it had through the skylight in Maine. The yard was much bigger, too, and my mother planned to start a vegetable garden as soon as it got warm enough. On a good day, the salty ocean breeze would make its way up the hill to the house. It had the armchair with the claw marks from my cats in the living room, and my grandmother’s paintings of my sisters and me were hanging on the walls. But it wasn’t my home. It was like a faux designer bag; almost an exact replica of the real thing but just different enough not to be. All the pieces of my old home were there, but every time I walked through the door, I knew it was a fraud.
But, we painted the house, and eventually, the blanket I had brought with me from Arlington began to mend itself. New friends covered the holes that were left by the loss of old friends and the threads that had unraveled during our move, wove themselves back together. As it started to fill up with the sounds of yelling children and the smell of my mother’s cooking, the house began to transform into my home. The walls and fridge became covered with progress reports and art projects from our new schools. My sisters and I spent afternoons running around the yard, playing games of cops and robbers with new neighborhood kids. I knew all of the best hiding places inside and out—the crawl space under the front porch, and the tiny cave system in the rocks outside. No one ever found me, although I think that’s partly on account of my home field advantage. After toiling in the garden all summer, we harvested our crops and preserved them to remind us of the sun in the middle of the harsh New England winter. New memories were being made instead of dwelling on old ones. And the house I never imagined myself calling home, became the third.
I thought that big house on the hill in Gloucester would be my home forever. That no matter how far away I lived or long I had been gone, I would always be able to go back and call it home. When I lived in an apartment in Boston, I longed for the weekends so that I could hop on the commuter rail and return to Gloucester. And, every Sunday, I would procrastinate my eventual return to that sparse, two-bedroom place surrounded by concrete. It wasn’t home. The room I slept in wasn’t my bedroom. At home, I could differentiate the footsteps of each family member as they walked up the stairs. My father’s booming and rhythmic steps, or the light springy footfalls of my sisters’. I could tell you which door was being opened and what room was being exited and entered. Bumps in the night had an origin, and I knew what they were. It wasn’t just the creaks and groans of an old house, they were the sound effects and background music to the biopic of my life—they were the sounds of my home.
But, it was not meant to be. As part of the agreement reached during my parents slow, torturous divorce, the house on the hill was to be sold. Throughout the litigation process, it was mentioned that the house would be sold. Despite knowing this, knowing that the place I had called home for the past decade, would no longer be, the longer it took my parents to figure out who got what, the more unlikely that reality felt. It was May when things finally got sorted out. My father, always afraid of confrontation, stared down at the ground while he told me it was time to start packing. Somehow, he looked smaller — defeated and weary, as he let me know that I could no longer count on hopping on the commuter rail to escape back to Gloucester.
We, as a family, had transformed the once shabby-looking house into a home until we could no longer call it our home. We painted the rooms, filling them with bookshelves that swayed in the middle and cabinets that held mismatched china sets. We, as a family, then, divided up the same furniture, knickknacks, and art that had accumulated until it was all packed away. Slowly, the four floors of material possessions that had been stockpiled, collected, and gathered throughout the years, were emptied out. One pile of boxes stood at the doorway, waiting to be carried off to my mother’s new place. Another, was headed to The Salvation Army. The final pile sat alone in the brick-red room that had been where we, as a family, sat to eat Thanksgiving dinner each year, ready to fill whatever new place my father and I found.
Emptied of our material possessions — our book collections, and zoos of stuffed animals, spools of yarn, and albums filled with photos— an eerie silence settled inside the house. Echoes seemed to travel endlessly through the hallways, and rooms seemed larger now that they were free of our clutter. As I stood in the front hallway for the last time, the sun shone through the porch windows, matching the bright, yellow of the wall, and I realized it wasn’t the house or things inside of it that had made it home. It was the smell of spices and baked goods drifting from the kitchen, the yelping of my sisters as they were chased around by my dog, and the warmth of a place well-lived in that had made it home. It was the memory of the sunflowers that reached the second story windows in the first home, or playing with pill bugs and ants in the backyard in Arlington, or the smell of our very first Christmas tree as it sat in the living room of my last home.
It was these memories I had packed away and brought with me to every new home. I understood that it wasn’t just the the color of the walls or the position of the couch, but the memories attached with them instead. It was then that I understood that, just as I had with that great house on the hill, the wariness I felt for this new place, was only temporary.