We have come back to be cleansed from distance
from speed and the people we passed like mere items
in too many approaches and quick departures.
Laura Chester Eyes of the Garden
When neighbors in City Heights talk about going home, that home may be as close as Los Angeles or Tucson, or as far away as Vietnam, Eritrea or the Philippines. My neighbors have family in Mexico and make an annual December pilgrimage to Mexicali or Oaxaca so that their children can spend Christmas with their grandparents, their abuelos.
Distance, which translates into time and money, and unstable political circumstances in one’s home country are limiters on whether the wish to return home for a visit is ever realized. But beyond those considerations, can you go home if your home no longer exists?
A few weeks back I spontaneously decided to book a flight to Philadelphia, to celebrate my oldest nephew Charlie’s fiftieth birthday with his wife and son. We were both born and grew up on the western, opposite side of the state. My parents are long dead now and the family home long gone. It is not possible to go home again, but I was looking forward to spending time with family.
Yet I feel that I indeed went home. When Charlie met me with open arms at the airport, I emerged from his embrace reborn as Annie, the name I am known by with my family and with no one else. Home is the secret language of pet names and certain words and phrases that have become short hand for a shared history and when spoken are guaranteed to make everyone laugh, roll their eyes or groan.
When you go home you talk. You talk about family into the wee hours of the night. When you go home you eat. You eat special foods. I had requested SOS and Charlie served it up for breakfast the following morning. It was a salt laden soul satisfying gustatory experience.
For the uninitiated, SOS is thinly shaved dried beef in a medium white sauce served on toast (white bread). After eating this meal one is theoretically prepared to plow the lower forty acres before lunch. I was prepared to talk about family for the next seventy- two hours– after I unbuttoned my jeans.
Home is also about a certain geography. The suburban community where Charlie lives looks much like the rolling Appalachian foothills where I grew up, sans the plaintive wail of train whistles echoing up through the hollers.
The second day I was there, I stood outside on the front porch and heard what I at first thought were turkeys calling. The sound grew louder. I looked overhead and saw the unmistakable V pattern of Canada geese unzipping the soft grey belly of the winter sky, loosing–snow!
I had not seen snow for decades. I grew up with it, shoveled paths through the loathsome stuff that would equal the circumference of the earth and happily left it behind with no regrets. “If I never see snow again, it will be too soon….” Yet there I stood, deliriously happy at the sight of the falling snow.
It was eighteen degrees and snow was falling. It kept falling all day. Standing on the porch I looked across white roofs at trees etched black against the sky. In my growing up years, I was able to identify trees even in winter, when only their bones were visible. I tried to remember, but my memory was as blank as the landscape.
It was so cold and dry that the snow squinched beneath my feet. Yes, I remembered that particular sound of snow and the familiarity brought a flash of joy. At dusk, when the first house lights came on, the snow caught the light and turned to glitter. I felt as though I were a tiny porcelain figure frozen in a state of perpetual awe inside of a snow globe.
We spent evenings poring over old pictures, each one of us stopping at various points to recount some story. Many of the stories had been told numerous times, others provided unexpected revelations. Our fingers gently traced the contours of our younger faces, the smiling faces of family members now dead. We breathed life back into them and filled the room with their presence. And wept. And laughed.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at my realization that home is not some fixed point in space. What we remember– and what we forget, assure that the cartography of the human heart will always be inexact. For all of us, who love in time, our task is to continue to elaborate our heart’s unknown edge.