WHAT IS HOME?
We’ve been packing up my mother’s house. The walls are bare now, the shelves empty. That house was never my home — my parents bought it after my father’s two terms as president were over — but it was their home, the house where they lived out their remaining years, the house where they each died.
The two homes from my childhood are gone — both demolished. In their place are enormous mansions, the kind of houses my father would have raised puzzled eyebrows at, as in ‘ Why would anyone want that much house around them?’ There was a part of him that always remained a small town boy from Dixon, Illinois. The property on a narrow dead-end street where we moved when I was 6 and where most of my memories reside looks completely different now. Where once the modest mid-century house, known as the General Electric house, was tucked into the hillside, a towering two story house — gleaming white and boasting 7 bedrooms and 10 baths — takes up most of the lot. The builders are using the fact that the property once belonged to my family, even calling the house “The Riviera White House,” which is either amusing or obnoxious depending on your viewpoint and mood.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about home these days — what it means, what longings it evokes. It is certainly a place, a structure that we perceive as safe and familiar, something that brims with memories and fills us with a sense of security and peace. But when homes are dismantled, as my mother’s house now is, they suddenly look plain and ordinary. We run to our memories to restore what was once there. To feel at home again.
In my novel The Earth Breaks in Colors, an earthquake damages much of Los Angeles, including the homes of some of the characters. Separated from one another, they make their way across a broken city to be reunited. They are trying to make it home…but not so much to the physical structures of their houses. They are trying to make it home to each other. They are pulled by love and longing for the people who made them feel at home within themselves.
Ultimately that’s what I think home is — where we live inside ourselves, the walls of our hearts that hold safe the people we love who we have let in and kept warm. Who have kept us warm when life has turned cold and who have reminded us that tenderness is a strong rope that can pull all of us through the roughest waters. Our home is the place inside us that is filled with laughter and loss and love, where memories wait around every corner, where regrets live alongside triumphs. It’s a place of shadows and light. When the characters in The Earth Breaks in Colors find one another, they have come home, even though they don’t know yet if their houses are still standing.
Sometimes we have to travel treacherous paths to realize what home really is. In The Wizard of Oz, when Glenda finally tells Dorothy that all she has to do is click her heels 3 times and say ‘There’s no place like home,’ Dorothy says, “That’s all? Why didn’t tell you tell me that before?” Glenda says, “Well, my dear, you wouldn’t have believed me.”
I drive past the places where I was once a baby, a toddler, a surly teenager, and in my memories I’m home. I look at the bare walls and empty rooms of my parents’ house and remember how they loved the view of the city from the sweep of their garden. How, when the moon was full, it seemed closer from that hilltop. And I think about this: wherever we go from here, after this life, is perhaps the most profound version of home. My parents are somewhere past the moon and stars, but just as love was their home in this world, they have come home again.