Unless you’ve lived in the same house all your life, you can’t pinpoint the moment when your place became your home. It happened while you weren’t looking.
The longer you live somewhere (excepting a war zone, I guess), the more you get attached to it — or at least you can take comfort in everyday normalcy. To be pulled away permanently is wrenching, but those attachments can anchor like a root system in an entirely different place.
I attended my first seven school grades in Norfolk, Virginia, home of the world’s largest naval base. Many of my friends were the sons of officers — it was an all-boys school — so it was very common to have to say goodbye after Dad’s two- or three-year assignment was up and new friends rotated in. Navy brats were used to it. They moved around all the time. I was the stable one: my dad was a civilian. So it came as quite a shock when one day he announced that we were going to move. I loved my house, my street, my school, my friends, and now they were all going away. I mean, this time I was.
We moved much farther South, to Jackson, Mississippi, where my father was joining a bunch of Virginia grocery executives to roll out a regional supermarket chain. In the summer of 1962 — the midst of the Civil War centenary — Jim Crow still ruled, and there was a meanness that hadn’t been shoved in my face in the Commonwealth. We seemed to be on Mars: the atmosphere was viscid and foreign, the heat so stifling that simply mowing the lawn used up most of my juice. I hated everything. I wasn’t traumatized or clinically depressed, just good Ole Miserable. And I’d been such a happy little squirt, too. My folks pondered what to do.
I’m not sure I could have come up with such wisdom, but my parents were struck by genius. (1) My dad solemnly promised that if I would just give Jackson a chance for exactly one year and I still wanted to go back at that point, then we would. (2) They enrolled me in summer band class at my junior high school. We rented a saxophone — my choice — and I took as many lessons as I could cram in before band started.
Action (1) gave me the reassurance of a firm deadline. I began writing my grandmother a letter every day. (She lived down the street — how idyllic had my life been, folks?) Each one counted off the days remaining until I’d be back in Norfolk. Action (2) was designed to get me something I needed achingly badly: friends. Sure enough, the commonality of band practice helped me sink the first tendrils. I met two of my lifelong besties in that rehearsal room, the oldest continual friendships I have. For years my grandma would tell people the story of my letters. She said they arrived daily for about two weeks. Then I started missing days. Then maybe once a week. A month. Then it was down to the annual birthday card. She would smile through all this because she understood the reason: I was forming a new life and sloughing off the misery. (I’m sure I hadn’t been the only one who was sad when I left Norfolk, but she handled it like an adult.)
We drove back “home” for a visit every summer for several years, and even though I was building relationships in Mississippi (shut up, there’s such a thing as a girl?), I still felt like a displaced frontiersman. But by the time some buddies and I celebrated high school graduation with a car trip to New York and stopped in Norfolk on the way up, enough life had passed to change the appearance of houses, shutter beloved mom-and-pop shops, and render my boyhood hood unfamiliar. I didn’t belong here any more. I remember noting this at the time: in only five years, “home” for me had become Jackson, Mississippi.
I lived there for 22 nonconsecutive years. Four intervening years in Athens, Georgia was time enough for it to become “home” too. But when I went back to Athens for a writers’ conference twenty years later, all I could recognize were the street names. (Turning indie-hip with the B-52s and R.E.M. transformed the place.) By that time I had become a book editor, a result of my most radical lifestyle change ever. That happened when I moved from Mississippi to New York.
Ask any progressive in a red state — they are definitely there, in each and every one — and they’ll nod when you describe the low-grade wariness you have to carry around every day. Living in an overwhelmingly reactionary society doesn’t change your mind, but it makes you mindful of your surroundings. If I still lived in Jackson and continued my independent corporate communications work with big, connected companies and agencies, I’d need to watch what I say in public. If I wanted to do business with the powers that be, I wouldn’t have to lie, but I would have to remain silent about our current president or any other president. I’d imagine it’s only a tame cousin to the way closeted gays are still made to feel, but in my own small straight way I do get it. The most immediate, and unexpected, surprise after my move up north was a sense of political and cultural exhalation. It was so relaxing to be able to abandon self-censorship.
It’s not that everybody agrees with you, far from it. Or that injustice and prejudice don’t exist. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my undeservedly charmed life, it is this: there are rednecks everywhere.) It’s just that up here, no state-sponsored point of view makes most everybody’s heads nod like drinking ducks. I couldn’t figure out my oddball sense of calm relief in one of the world’s most frenetic cities for a long time. I think I’ve finally pegged it. Namaste.
But once again, societally I found myself on Mars. Lots of life was new again. I can amaze people in both cultures with fun facts about myself. New Yorkers: I didn’t know what a bagel was until I was 38 years old. They’re everywhere now, but they weren’t always. Mississippians: I haven’t owned an automobile for 31 years. (Now you know how old I am!) I do not have the slightest inkling what a gallon of gas costs until I top off my rental car two or three times a year.
In a strange clime, you notice little things. The accents and idioms. “Mou’ain” for “mountain,” no T. “I’m a Met fan.” Singular. “Have a goot one.” Rhymes with “soot.” That singsong recitative that is spreading nationwide: “I went to the GYM, I rode on the BIKE, I walked back HOME, I picked up the KIDS…” Standing “on line” instead of “in line.” That distinctive overloud New York sigh (usually heard while waiting “on line”) that says, I don’t like this but there’s nothing I can do about it so I shall express my displeasure to all within earshot. Yiddish words that just osmose: I’d been misusing and misspelling “macher” my whole life without realizing it, but not any more, and now I have a few other choice ones in my vocab. The overhonking of car horns. When I’m in traffic anywhere else, it seems strangely quiet; back home I even feel for the semi driver who spends all day navigating double-parkers on already-snug cross streets until he finally looses his frustration with the ole air horn.
Did you hear that? “Back home.”
I used to say, “On a hot day back home, it smells like dirt and pine needles. Here it smells like garbage and dog doo.” But now I say, “On a hot day down South…” I don’t know when my perspective changed. It happened when I wasn’t looking. Headed into New York on an airplane, I used to think, wow, look at all the people who live here, and there’s Central Park! Now I just think, I’m home. Many, many New Yorkers came from somewhere else, as I did. But if they managed to stick it out, they became New Yorkers themselves, and that means they found a home. Norfolk, my favorite place ever when I was a kid, is but a wisp of a memory now. (Have I just stumbled upon the dadburn meaning of life?) I’ve planted roots elsewhere. And even though the location of home may zig and zag throughout a full human span, it’s so soothing to know it when you’re there. Wherever that may be.