At 21, where is home?


I'M HEADING home."

"Are you going home-home, or to see your parents?"

I had this conversation with a friend a few weeks ago. With an overnight bag swinging on one wrist, I thought it was clear that I was going to my parents' home for the weekend. But the word "home" confused my friend and sparked a 10-minute conversation over what "home" means when you're 21 and a college senior.

The incident reminded me of a midnight conversation I had with my mother four falls ago. The hardest thing about leaving for college, she said, was knowing that where you grew up will never be the same again. I cried at the idea of leaving all I knew behind and also because I'd never thought of the next phase of my life in that way.

Now, when I return to Ann Arbor, Mich., I find that Mom was right: Things are different. Our living room has been redecorated. The playground hill I once flew down on my dirt bike seems smaller, a quick jog up with my long strides. Even the University of Michigan freshmen look so young with their new sweat shirts on. There's an expectant look in their eyes, as if in wonder of the four years of schooling ahead.

I've been there. But now, as a Johns Hopkins University senior on the threshold of a career, I find myself from time to time struggling with the concept of home. After leaving my parents' home, I bunked first in a campus dormitory, then later a university-owned apartment and, since June, a privately owned apartment building.

In the apartment, my roommates and I learned how to cook and vacuum under sofas. Yet, for the most part, we were still kept in the paternal grasp of the university which collected our mail and furnished us with new pillow cases.

In our apartment of five months, my roommate and I feel truly independent: We signed the lease, bought furniture and now we pay the rent.

We both have new choices and responsibilities. How often do we do the dishes? Is it OK to leave the windows open in December? And our choice of decor, two $5 couches, one lime-green, the other chocolate brown.

The moving process gave us a fresh start. A new place means new views and neighbors, a different trunk in which to store memories. It's the last step before having a place that's mine alone.

When I return to my parent's home, I notice the differences between their's and mine. They use a different dish detergent, think 80 degrees indoors is normal and don't play the radio at breakfast.

They're allowed. They live there.

Yet so did I not too long ago. Signs of my presence are still there, as my parents promised. My U2 posters still decorate the walls of my bedroom. I bought them the first day of spring break in 10th grade. The bed sits perfectly made from lack of a sleeper.

Sleeping in my childhood bed, I toss and turn for most of my first night back, which makes a certain about of sense. The totems of my current self sit in my Baltimore apartment; my home.

Recently, a Hopkins career planner asked me where I plan to live for the next few years. What city do I want to call home? I repeated the question many times walking back to my apartment.

I trudged up the hill crowned by the Hopkins athletic center, my building stands across the street from the baseball diamond. I could see my bedroom window on the top floor. From the street, I could make out glimpses of my home: my bookcase containing my favorite novels, the red numbers of my digital clock, the tan glow of a halogen lamp, given to me by a graduating friend. Of HTC all the windows in this tall building, just one stood out to me. And it was the one place that I feel the most comfortable, the most, well, at home.

I don't know where life will take me after graduation. But I'll probably live in several cities over my lifetime. One thing is certain, I'll always know what the word home means.

Kevin Smokler writes from Baltimore.

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