Home is one of those words that is easy to define until you start really thinking about it.
It’s a place. It’s people. It’s belongings. It’s a state of mind. It’s a wish.
When I was a child, my home was in a cozy suburb of Detroit. It was the green house in the middle of the street that had a shared driveway with the house next door. Home was my dad reading the paper and my mom in the kitchen or the garden. It was my brothers in motion and whatever pets were around and my toys and my books and my favorite blanket.
But I was lucky enough to always have other places in my life that also felt like home. My grandparents’ house in Ohio, where we’d spend many major holidays, was home, as was their cottage in the northern woods of Michigan. I lived for a summer with my uncle and his family, and that was home for a time. Home in those contexts was a place that provided safety and comfort. A place to rest and a place to gather with family.
Living in scaled down, temporary places like dorms and apartments meant consolidating bits of home into objects on a desk or in a drawer. If I had a Rubik’s cube with me, and a stuffed animal to hug, and a few books that felt like friends, I felt as if I was staking out a bit of territory that represented me and made me comfortable.
When I began to create a new family, I questioned where “home” really was. I still refer to that house and the people in Detroit as “back home.” Even though I’ve lived away from there longer than I was a resident, and Milwaukee is now decidedly my home, “back home” is real. When I step into the house of my childhood, it’s always still my home, even though none of it belongs to me now. Part of me still lays claim to the door to my old bedroom, and the floors, and the walls. I know the music of the basement pipes, I know the creak of the stairs, and the coolness of the front porch. Even when I’m in that house alone, it’s crowded. It’s filled with memories and people that helped make me who I am, because that’s part of what home is.
Home is certainly more than a house. I discovered that the hard way after my grandmother died and her house sold. That house was equally crowded with memories, and I helped clear it of objects even as my grandmother was still alive and living in a nursing facility, which I think everyone would agree was never her home. I wept as I moved about that space with my small children (my son even crawled there for the first time on that occasion, adding to the memories set under that roof), and knew I was seeing floors and walls and fixtures, that in some way seemed like mine, for the last time. When I drove by that house years later after my grandma had died, I was stunned by the wave of emotions I felt. I had expected to feel nostalgic and warm. Instead I felt cast out. The house was home to a new family. It was no longer on the list of places where I was welcome.
Home can shift. Home sometimes only lives in memory. Losing a home is like losing a piece of yourself.
The most interesting experiment with the idea of “home” shifting from one place to another was when my husband and I moved across the street. We lived in our first house for about ten years. I loved that house. It was where we brought home all our babies. It had a frustrating, small kitchen, and the basement had issues, and there were no real closets so I was constantly rearranging things in the desperate hope that somehow the belongings of five people would fit—but it was definitely home. Easily some of the most important memories of my life were created there.
Then the house across the street, which was much nicer and larger (and had closets), went up for sale. My husband was deployed in Iraq at the time, and I was home alone with our three small children, but we found a way to buy the house. Then I had the task of trying to move into it.
The problem with moving across the street is it seems almost silly to box everything the way you would in a normal move. We had as much time as we needed to make the transition, so I would simply carry objects over whenever the time allowed. I would box things, carry the box across the street and empty it, then bring the box to the first house and fill it again. It was a painfully slow process.
But both houses were ours. We could spend time in either. So every day that I drove the kids back from school, we would pause at our intersection and I would ask, “Left or right?” and they would decide which house to go to. Furniture moved over. Toys moved over. We worked on painting the rooms in the new house then slept in the old one. I was sure when the TV moved to the new house that that would be the tipping point for the kids. I was wrong. The tipping point was the food. Home was where the good snacks were.
My oldest daughter was nine at the time, and we had long talks about the idea of home. She was concerned that the new house, despite being filled with our things, didn’t feel like home. She was afraid it never would. I assured her that we were what made a place a home. That as we created new memories in that space, it would become ours just as much as the old house had been. Home is a kind of magic, and I assured her that the magic moved with us from one place to the next. By being together and loving each other and using the new house in ways that suited us and our habits, it would become home soon enough. I promised.
Now, ten years later, this house is definitely home and it’s hard to imagine being anywhere else. The new challenge for my daughter will be venturing off on her own in the next few years as she leaves for college and begins her life as an adult. She’s currently trying to decide how to condense what she loves down to a few objects to bring to a dorm room to make it feel like home.
I’m glad that I’ve managed to create a home in a place that my child wants to return to, the way I still return to my original home in Detroit. She cherishes the idea of home, and wonders aloud which elements of it she will miss most when she’s finally off on her own. I’m curious to see, when she eventually settles in a spot that she defines as a home, what objects and habits will be new, and what may reflect me, or our cottage, or anyplace else that has imprinted on her as comfort, security, and love.
Korinthia Klein is a writer, luthier, and musician living in Milwaukee WI. She has published three novels, an instrument repair guide, and her This I Believe essay (Amazing Grace) is among the top ten most downloaded pieces from that archive. She runs a violin store with her husband, and has three kids, a noisy bird, and a weird little dog. More information about her writing can be found on her author page at www.korinthiaklein.com