Twelve years ago, I went to closing on the only house I have ever owned. My father, after settlement, said, "Now you know what to do the next time you buy a house." I could not have been more stunned.
"Oh no," I told him, "I will never move from this house. I am done."
And at the time, I had not yet moved in my dozens of plants, hundreds of books, two dogs, some number of cats. I was only mentally living in the two floors of the wood-frame Victorian into which I have since sprawled. But I knew at that exchange of signatures and checks, documents and declarations, that this town and this south-facing house is home. This house is the one I am learning to know by the creak of the stair and the leak in the basement. I know where the sun comes up each season in the bedroom window, the sound of the ice maker re-filling with water, how hard to turn the shower spigot that needs to be replaced because of the drip. This is home.
To my friend Teresa, being home is something she is still defining, and her definition may differ from mine. Teresa recently returned to Florida after staying with me for a week. As she prepared for the long drive from Maryland, she uttered, "I guess I have to go home, but where is home? What does that mean?" She had come north to settle some business, having lived here in Havre de Grace as my neighbor. Just 10 months ago she had relocated to her hometown in Florida so that her children could know their grandparents — something they had missed out on as the family moved from Maryland to upstate New York, before Teresa and her husband divorced, leaving her with three children and many decisions. Now she wanted to come back to Havre de Grace. No wonder she was wondering aloud about home.
In this current economic and mortgage crisis, Americans are losing their literal homes at an alarming rate. Current estimates indicate that more than 1 million homes will be foreclosed in 2010. While certainly a high number, this is still just a number to me. I need the families, the faces, the children switched out of schools for the reality to sink in. Teresa is one of those faces for me. But still, she has some resources to find another home. When she visited me she was renting a small house in Florida, feeling the great responsibility of finding home not just for herself but for three children. They, too, had lost the home they had trusted all their lives, and now Teresa struggled to give them some new version of that. Somehow four walls and a roof is just part of what people are looking for.
Just right now, for me, on a rainy, cold evening, to be home means unpacking groceries, turning on the radio, feeding cats and dogs, washing dishes, then pouring that welcome glass of merlot. Being home means I know where the vegetable drawer is, how to reach to the top of the fridge to find the stereo. Being home means being content, fed, surrounded by those four-leggeds I love, and having the comfort of accompanying music, news reports and wine. But what it means to be home looks different to others.
Take my friends Mary and Sarah, both gainfully employed and renting apartments in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., respectively. They had shelter, even with room for Sarah's 4-year-old daughter. They had places to store guitars, hang artwork and charge their laptops. Friends knew where to gather, and their plants waited patiently for water. But Mary and Sarah knew what they wanted was a home, a place together so that every ritual was shared: doing dishes, decorating for the holidays of two religions, folding laundry, rooting for football teams and Oscar winners. Mary and Sarah wanted to lock the doors each evening, knowing family was cradled inside the same four walls, beneath the same safe roof.
What does it mean to not have those safe walls and roof? What does it mean to be threatened with no place to hang your coat, your dog leash, your proverbial hat? For my friend Jack, home has always been somehow pliant and a bit illusory. Jack was given up as a child, foster parented, then orphaned at 17 and put out of the only home he had known. Now a 20-year veteran of the Army, he lived in many states and countries before retiring with enough money to buy the American dream, a four-bedroom, 2-1/2 bath house with two-car garage in the suburbs. Forget that he had no wife or children to fill those rooms. He knew the life that had long been promised to many Americans, not just those in uniform.
But it took just about half a dozen years for the foreclosure crisis and recession to call his mortgages in. Eventually, unable to sell his house for below his buying price, Jack was put out. He found an apartment that would allow his cat and dog, but no one can guarantee him the security that his money will hold, that his second-story walk-up will remain his. His landlady could decide to renovate and sell. He lives month to month, somehow ignoring the thin rope on which hangs his daily living space.
I grew up in a safe household, by which I mean my father was gainfully employed, and when we, the children, entered school, my mother, too, was employed. I never doubted that I would walk down the hill of Hermliegh Road to find my key fit in the doorknob, my bed and books in my room. My middle-class upbringing filled me with security that I have sought out and re-created for the last two decades. Throughout graduate school and early part-time teaching jobs, I delicately balanced independence from parents and dependence on others with an array of roommates. As I gathered cats and dogs and birds, I worried that landlords would put me out of what felt like home, even if only a temporary one. What I wanted was to stay.
I think that is what Teresa is looking for. She wants to be in the place where she settles, a place where her children, after growing and moving away, can return to as home. Just recently she almost made it to her new apartment in Havre de Grace, but as she entered town, late at night with a moving van full of some of her life, she broke down. Not mechanically, but emotionally. What seemed like all she wanted became a fragile possibility she could not risk. A woman who had banked her whole life on marriage and child-raising, Teresa had been plowing through the last two years, trying to maintain some semblance of the life she had known for almost two decades. In those 20 years, she had known what home was and how to make it. Now she fumbled in the ever-changing expectations.
Should she get a job? Finish her college degree? Raise all three kids alone? How to move on haunted her as she feared taking yet another temporary step. So she did what any of us would do. She returned home. Her two sons turned the truck back south, she followed in the station wagon, and my dear friend called home, called her mother. It has been only a few weeks, but that is where she has alighted, awaiting some clarity on her next move.
We all want to be home. We may not know what that means right now, but as we move into the holiday season, home becomes an even more sentimental and, at the same time, more practical desire. How can that become a reality for all those who are put out, who downsize, who search for a rent they can afford, a house they can fit into and love? This is a gift that most often, fortunately or unfortunately, we can only give ourselves with experience, hard work and some degree of good timing and luck. We are struggling to know what we need, hoping at the same moment to find exactly what we want. Perhaps it is the ability to find the light switch in the dark or to move alongside the warmth of a lover under the covers. Perhaps it is smell of the air and the sound of distant traffic when one steps out for a walk.
What I know is that despite our differences, the search for a home is one we all share.
Colleen Webster is a professor of English at Harford Community College. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.