I had dinner recently with a group of writing colleagues while we were at a conference. One writer shared part of his talk for his panel presentation on the concept of home. My colleagues then shared the journeys they had taken and the many places they had lived through the years. We talked about where we were from, where we live now and if we considered our parents’ homes still our homes as well.
I want to tell my own story of home, but I am often stymied by what this word means, and I use it in a seemingly casual way to others. For example, when I travel away from Flagstaff, I’m just as apt to call another place “home,” whether I’m staying at a friend’s house or a hotel during a writing conference. “I’m heading home,” I will say to my confused travel companions before having to explain, “No, I mean the Days Inn.”
As a writer, I sometimes have romantic notions of how I will write about my childhood home. Part of my plans this past year included a trip back to my hometown of Rochester, New York, where I have not lived since I was 22 years old and haven’t visited in about that many years. I had in my mind some kind of compare-and-contrast scenario, which maybe could lead to only an overwhelming sense of melancholy for people and places lost through time. Friends who moved away, a favorite book store that closed, the carousel at the amusement park that burned down. These are losses I already know about without having to visit their ghosts on the streets they occupied. But I still dreamed of visiting the house I grew up in to see if it is how I remembered it, perhaps knocking on the front door and meeting the current occupants. Of course they would welcome me in and show me around. Optimally, my childhood bedroom would still have its pink wallpaper and my Mrs. Beasley doll propped on the bed.
My mother and I talked about taking this trip together. While she didn’t share my enthusiasm for visiting our old house, we did plan to visit several of our favorite restaurants. Rochester is steeped in a tradition of frozen custard ice cream and local hamburger joints, some of which still dot the Ontario lakeshore. Our planning came to a halt when my mother sent an email telling me that our old house had burned down. I went immediately to all of the internet mapping programs, all still showing the house standing, but then I looked closer and wondered if it was our house at all. The backyard hill that we spent so many weekends sledding down seemed small. The big pine tree in the front yard was gone and replaced with a maple tree. The slope of the driveway where I spent Saturdays rolling pill bugs down the asphalt did not seem as steep. I imagined this must be a new house built on the same land as our old house, backyard and driveway leveled somehow.
I sent my mother a screenshot of the house still standing from the street view of the mapping program, as if proof that she was wrong. She sent me back the link to the news article and video of the fire from the local television station. The house was a complete loss, only the skeletal frame remained as firefighters whacked at timbers with axes and used hoses to put out smaller fires. To add insult to injury, the newscaster mispronounced our street name twice.
My mind continued to drift during this conference dinner conversation, unable to fix on a concept of home as I listened to everyone’s stories and mentally itemized places I called home during the pauses. I remembered a moment of panic during the Slide Fire as I struggled to remember where I had filed our homeowner’s insurance. But then I stopped and looked around our house, realizing I could lose everything and still have a place to call home if my husband and cats were with me. I know that I have been fortunate my whole life to always have a place to stay or family to return to or a job so that I could afford to move whenever things got really bad. I have never felt attached to a particular place as home and I wondered about this.
I had watched a nature video at the conference—of hermit crabs exchanging shells with each other, hoping to find a good fit, a perfect new home. For some crabs, found objects such as cans stood in for shells. These crabs looked for the best fit at the right time, unwilling to be permanently attached to any kind of shell. This made me realize that home could be wherever I was willing to belong and to be myself. That there really isn’t a physical boundary for home for me, which is why every hotel, or friend’s house, or coffee shop I return to—wherever I feel comfortable, I will call home—accidentally on purpose, perhaps.
As my mind drifted back to our dinner conversation, I realized this moment was a place to call home as well. To spend time with people I didn’t know very well, having a meaningful conversation around the table and sharing a meal is a special kind of home. It can be built through serendipity and attention and a willingness to share our ideas with others. This is my kind of home—flexible, comfortable and impermanent. Like little hermit crabs, we can take these feelings of belonging with us, potentially creating new homes with each other, wherever we may be.