Where the heart is

    It is especially during these first few weeks of the new year, on the heels of the holiday blur, that I most sharply feel the loss of home. Or, more aptly, the loss of something I never had.

    Twice in my life I have felt what must have been the “feeling” of home. Growing up in Golden, Colorado, right under the piney apron of the Rockies, I felt at home; the yeasty smell of hops, malt and barley from the Coors brewery even today one of my most vivid sense memories.

    But I had come there from somewhere else (New Jersey), and at 17, couldn’t wait to leave. A short move up the road to Boulder for a few years to get my college degree before I followed my parents — true wanderers — to southern California, a mythic place it seemed my family had always been trying to get to.

    It took years of living in southern California before I felt that might be home. After all, nearly everyone there was from somewhere else, so I could be too.

    When I fell in love with a third generation Californian, got married and had two children, I felt as though I had done it. I had made my own home. In addition to building my own nest, I slid happily into the fold of my husband’s parents and his siblings. Never again would there be a question of where to spend holidays and birthdays. Traditions were built and adhered to with the blithe faith that it would always be so.

    One day my husband came home and said that he had been offered a position in the Midwest. It would be a significant move up the corporate ladder for him. We believed we could transplant everything we had built to our new home, a Dutch colonial on a large corner lot in a leafy, then snowy, northern suburb of Chicago. It would be an adventure, striking out on our own. Little did I know that I would never feel settled again.

    That was almost 20 years ago.

    My first year in the Midwest was not pretty, and I’m not just talking about the weeks of below-zero temperatures and the hard blue ice that sheathed tree limbs, cracking them and fiercely and cavalierly flinging them to the frozen earth. I longed for southern California like a missing limb.

    Now on holidays, we had to fly across the country with two young children, the four of us sleeping in twin beds and sleeping bags in my husband’s childhood bedroom.

    My husband’s parents began a decline, and my marriage ended — two things I had never anticipated. Unmoored, I stayed put in the Midwest until my children left for college.

    I had also fallen in love again, and so newly married, I moved to Philadelphia, where my husband lived and worked. Would this be my new home now?

    My son was in Massachusetts, my daughter in Chicago, my first husband in Connecticut, my parents and siblings still in Colorado and California. I never knew where to go “home for the holidays.” I studied holiday cards with their photos of happy, intact extended families, with the longing that accompanies the hard knowledge that you will never have that very thing you long for.

    When I am traveling and a seatmate asks me, as we land, if this (wherever this is) is my home, I stammer a vague answer. I cast about in my mind for a picture of home. What does it look like? And why does it elude me?

    Maybe at a certain time in your life you have to let go of a certain notion of home. My beloved mother-in-law, Louise, whom I could never imagine anywhere but the home she had so lovingly made and lived in for nearly 50 years, died alone in a nursing home. I doubt whether she ever thought of that place as home.

    When I travel back to the cities and towns where I once lived, I am always compelled to drive past the houses where I lived. I slow down and try to picture the girl or the woman I was in those homes. She is still there, in my memory; skipping rope, hanging the Beatrix Potter wallpaper for her baby girl’s room, planting English poppies near the front door, perched on a ladder stenciling the family room with little blue cottagey houses.

    Now I wonder: Was I truly at home in all those different houses? Or was I always on my way to somewhere else? Maybe I will always have this part of me that imagines those parallel lives I might have led if I had stayed put. The lives where I still felt at home.

    Kathy Stevenson’s work appears regularly on NewsWorks. Her essays have appeared in many major newspapers and magazines. Her historical novel The Lake Poet was published in 2001 and she has published two essay collections. In 2010, her short story collection Death, Divorce, and Other Tales of Women’s Liberation was published as an e-book on Amazon’s Kindle. She received an M.F.A. in creative writing from Bennington College in Vermont.

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