Defining Home

Letter From the Editor

While enduring the final minutes of a late-afternoon workout the other day, my phone awoke me from a treadmill trance. An alert was on my screen: 8 minutes to home; traffic is normal right now. This was something new, and at first I thought it was a joke text from my husband, like, “Where are you? I’m hungry … it’s time for dinner!”

I found out later that the message was actually part of a map app, sort of a traffic update/geographic location thing. But really, the second I read it, I was cheered! (Whether I was actually going home or not isn’t the point, but knowing how close to home I was — well, it gave me a certain feeling.)

That feeling. It’s the same one I get when driving home, turning off of busy roads and onto my quiet street. I often say to my husband as we’re pulling into the driveway, “Back to our harbor.” That’s how it feels — our days are full of challenges, navigating who knows what and where, but we know that we’ll eventually drop anchor at home.

Home is a feeling, and at no time was that more true than years ago on a late afternoon when I was a junior at Michigan State University. That’s when I first thought about defining home (too much Sartre and Camus, perhaps?).

I looked out the bedroom window — with NO window treatments, just simple blinds — in my cold (the heater never seemed to work right) little apartment, and saw bare trees lining the banks of the Red Cedar River.

Those trees would transport me to my bedroom at home. There, I’d often gaze out at the trees on our lawn through a window dressed with really great curtains — crisp white, heavy cotton, edged with grass-green and cerulean-blue pompom trim. Sitting on my country-classic bedspread with its little cornflower-blue daisies, I’d hear our dog’s paws clipping across the slate foyer floor. Mom would be rattling around in the kitchen looking for a Pyrex dish. Her blouse or turtleneck sleeves would be pushed up to the elbows as she dotted soon-to-be-cooked beef ribs or chicken with butter and paprika.

Those little stirrings of home, both material things and other, created such a moving feeling — and, that day, they left a big hole, too.

I didn’t know it then, but what I missed wasn’t only my warm, cheerful bedroom, but the secure sense you get from routine goings-on or things you take for granted at home — a Mom who cooked a good dinner every night, the sound of a pet, a  pretty tree right outside my window, and a doorbell ringing, suggesting friends would soon be leaping up the stairs.

Those memories helped me understand one of my sons the day he left for college. Right up until almost departure time, many of our 17-year-old’s packing boxes surprisingly sat empty on his bedroom floor. He was unusually quiet and didn’t even eat all of his bacon (his favorite!) that I had fried for breakfast. It’s not that he wasn’t excited about going away (“I can’t wait to get out of here!” he’d say during a squabble), but yet …

After we finally finished packing the car, we were ready to get on the road. But he didn’t look like someone who was about to leave home; rather, he looked more like he planned to stay awhile. He sat on the couch, feet propped up on the ottoman, and as still as that hot August morning’s air. Oblivious to his beeping phone, he watched our pet cockatiel flit around in his cage. Was he trying to commit to memory the bird’s chirping sounds? Or smell the toasty smoked bacon aromas that often filled our home? Was he taking in a last look at the flowering crabapple tree through the window near the sofa? Or was he imagining the foyer packed with his pals, who’d saunter in nearly every night in the summer? For sure, one of the most difficult journeys he’d make in life was that morning, crossing the family room from sofa to door.

He finally came out to the car and squeezed into the cramped seat behind me. While we watched my husband lock up the house, he started to cry. I turned around to look at him, and said just two words: “I know.” I do know — it’s that feeling of home.