We moved into the only house we’ve ever owned in May of 1998. Noah was 11 months old.
When I walked into this house, I immediately could imagine where the Christmas tree would go. With almost zero knowledge of what raising a family and nurturing a marriage would look like, I immediately felt like I would do it in these walls. In this 1880s Victorian farmhouse that sometimes feels like camping in the winter and always needs a handyman on speed dial.
This is the only home my 24YO knows and the only home my 21YO has ever had.
But I think that longevity is irrelevant to my thoughts today. Because the feeling of home can be created anywhere. And the feeling of “not home,” the same. Home is not the building. Home is the invitation. Home is the love. Home is the history, which can be moved from building to building with the toss of your grandmother’s quilt, baby and graduation pictures, and the yellow teapot you use when it’s cold.
If I were to guess, I would say I’ve been in the house I call my childhood home a dozen times since my mom died in the summer of 2016. My parents bought the house in 1976 and the muted, sometimes peeling Bicentennial wallpaper in the kitchen and dining room marks that.
Here are a few photos from my parents’ house: In the front yard just before our oldest moved to New York for college, my mom’s surprised face as Dad took her photo in the laundry room, my parents sitting in front of the fireplace (where all “formal” family photos are taken), all the cousins doing the same, and Mom with Noah in the Bicentennial kitchen with her wig during chemo. This is the home I remember. I loved going there.
My sister was six months old and I was 8 when we moved there. I started the fourth grade there, having left my best friend since kindergarten an hour away across Dallas. When I remember my years there, it is the comforting and loving space everyone deserves home to be.
It still felt like home on that Thursday morning I went the day after Mom died, too early for the amount of sleep I’d gotten. Dad and I sat in the always-too-dark living room (the front porch dad mostly finished kept the room warmer in the winter but dark year round), trying to decide where to bury Mom. We hadn’t had much time to think about it since her breast cancer came back three weeks ago in her liver. Three weeks isn’t enough time to learn, accept, and plan the death of your wife of almost 50 years or your mom of 49. But we did it at home.
It felt like home when my sister and I went a couple of months later to go through Mom’s things, Dad deciding it was time. We poked fun at her practical style as we layed all of her things on their bed. Piles to keep, piles to give away. I kept some brown pajama bottoms with white flowers, a North Dakota-warm pair of socks, a pair of earrings I’d given her, and a brown crocheted shawl with big white flowers I think Dad’s mom made her. Just three years before, Mom and I had gone through the same process — full of giggles and memories — at her mom’s trailer on the other side of town. I left Grandma’s house with another pair of earrings and a couple of tank tops I planned to sleep in at my home.
That day going through Mom’s things may have been the last time that house at the end of Robnett Road felt like home to me. It didn’t in 2018 when my sister got married there the day we dropped off our so-not-ready 18-year-old for college his first time around. My dad never invites us over anymore, yet we’re “welcome any time.” He doesn’t know how to “family” without Mom.
I was there yesterday, though. I intentionally stopped by to pick him up before we had lunch in town. The cats own the kitchen table where we used to have family meals. Right next to the table, a treadmill with cobwebs and dust further announce this is no place for family to gather anymore. I understand why Dad is the way he is. But I miss my childhood home.
My 21YO left for college last Friday after spending a month at home. He’s in that weird time where he calls our house “home” and his college apartment “home.” I catch myself when I almost do it, editing myself to say “your apartment” or “New Orleans.” I’m not ready for home to be anywhere else for him. I do the same with my 24YO sometimes, calling his nearby apartment just that instead of “home.”
My MIL’s home of 50 years, the home my husband grew up in, is less than 10 minutes away from my Dad’s house. I always felt at home there. The invitation. The unlocked door. The favorite foods and Dr Peppers in the pantry. His brother and family next door would stop by when they saw our car parked in the drive. My husband and I dated in high school so my memories of the space span longer than our 25-year marriage.
It’s been almost a year since my MIL moved into a Dallas apartment to be closer to us, in the midst of the pandemic and having just finished a year of chemo for breast cancer. My husband lived with her during that time in that little white house he grew up in. While they still haven’t sold it 10 months later, packing up and moving was difficult for both of them. And while I missed my husband during those months of social distancing as we all protected her from our germs, what a gift that they spent those last months together in that house. Their home.
Here’s the miracle of home, though: Home is centered on the people who welcome you in. My MIL has created it that her little apartment. I thought it was just me, but my husband feels it, too. Every important vibe she created in that little white house has been recreated in a 900-square-foot apartment.
Home is the feeling. Yes, the stuff helps. Yes, the food brings it all together. But the fact that she really wants us there and loves us makes this space home.
The home of one of my best friends burned down last summer. I asked her if their condo in a hip area of Dallas felt like home when her boys were home for Christmas. “Absolutely,” she said. They did their normal traditions and they’ve done plenty of Christmases away from their house but with each other. The four of them in one place is home.
As my kids come and go — as “adult” kids do — I hope I have created that for them. I think I have. I want this home to be a soft place for them to land on a normal Tuesday or a chaotic Sunday. Because THIS is the way you stay connected as kids grow up.
When I had babies, it was never jolting for us to travel or spend the night at my MIL’s house because they slept with us. They were home because we were their home. I think they can grow all the way up and have their adult lives and still feel that way about us on a very deep level.
Some homes have it. Some do not. There is no magic to the ingredients that create it, although love is among them. The invitation is fundamental. Fun family traditions and food seal the deal to me. Maybe “home” is really a verb. And maybe it’s the secret sauce to those families we all want to be — all up in each other’s business in the most loving and messy and healthy (usually) way.
Coming up on our 24th year in this house, I was right about it. But really, I was right about me. The house just gave me the canvas.