What It’s Like to Go Home

The space since childhood.

I went home this Christmas and New Year’s, for the first time in a couple of years. My wife, son, and I took the train to Washington DC, and then to Cleveland, and then back to Chicago. It was good to see everyone, and it was exhausting. Laura and I got back into town on the first, and went back to work on the second and third. I spent most of Saturday morning running errands to fix trip malfunctions (How delightful! Replacing a stolen credit card and a smashed phone!) and most of the afternoon asleep.

Ray got back on Sunday night, a day earlier than I was expecting him. He’ll probably sleep for the next 20 hours.

I had some weird dreams while I was home, folks. You might not be able to cross the same river twice, but going back to the banks gives weird views of the side you left years ago.

That metaphor makes even less sense than the original saw, “You can’t cross the same river twice.” I think it means something about water and where time goes and how things differ from day to day, but I’ve crossed some rivers hundreds of times, many of them multiple times on the same day.

Maybe we’re all just disconnected from nature now, so that metaphor is beyond us.

Maybe that saying should stay in the past with people who understand it.

My wife, my son, and I stayed at my mother’s house while I was home; my aunt and my cousin and his wife were there as well. With my mother and her boyfriend already living there, the house was very, very full: years of poorly designed and incomplete “improvements” from my ex-stepfather, plus some more systemic problems exacerbated by the neglect that comes from poverty have left parts of the house unlivable.

Things are more stable now that my mother and her boyfriend have combined their households, and they’re steadily fixing things up, but there are a couple of rooms that still can’t be used, and some where they’re still finding bigger problems.

One of those rooms was where all three of the people in my family slept: a leak in the roof has given it a persistent funk of mildew, and the tile ceiling is starting to fall in. Mom and David discovered the leak when they were cleaning things out to make space for all the guests, and my brother the contractor will probably help them fix it in the spring.

Last weekend, though, was pretty awful.

We were also sleeping on cots, because there was a queen-sized bed that couldn’t come up the stairs. I knew about this a day in advance, but I wasn’t prepared for the difference between “sleeping on a cot at camp when you’re twelve” and “sleeping on a cot in a moldy-smelling room when you’re almost forty.”

My wife and I had an interesting (miserable?) time trying to sleep, and after two nights we gave up and got a motel room. When we got home, I had to throw out my CPAP filter and face mask because of the smell. I’m waiting for a new hose and water chamber to come in the mail.

The logistics were terrible, as they so often are. The family love was harder.

As I get older it’s both more comforting and more foreign to be folded back into the bosom of my family of origin. My wife says this too, so I think it’s as much about getting as it is about the unreasonable circumstances I grew up in. Back in high school, I’m pretty sure being poor and mentally ill and far out of step with my classmates made me feel like some alien visitor, someone who didn’t belong on this planet, much less in my town.

Now that I’m an adult, leading a pretty conventional middle-class life, I feel just like everyone else. It’s great to see the dogs, just like other dogs I knew. The trees and the road and the neighbors’ houses are the same. Everyone who lives there has the same dreams that everyone who lives there has always had.

My mother is older, but she still starts cooking and leaves me to finish it while she goes out to do something else. We spent an hour sitting on her bed, talking about other people’s feelings, and it was cozy and useful and familiar.

My youngest brother lives down the road now, with his fiancee and daughter, but we still stand around telling lies about raising hell. He even took me to a party and left me there while I was home. What fun!

My sister’s married now, but she’s still an artist. We still all watched too much TV and stayed up too late talking politics and movies and video games. All the intellectual stimulation you could want. Plus more candy than you’d ever want to eat, just like every Christmas. I still have some!

My brother‘s still awake until dawn, even if he’s getting up earlier now. Thanks, familial insomnia! His schedule was nice when we needed to go to the train at 3am, because of Cleveland’s delightfully convenient train schedules.

Everyone was heartfelt and sarcastic, by turns, loud and thoughtful, quiet and blunt and unbearably thoughtful.

It’s claustrophobic.

And comfortingly familiar.

Homey and strange.

I’ve read a lot of pieces about how people don’t see the changes when they go home, or how going back for the holidays regresses you back to your childhood. I’m not sure how I’d judge that: I was pretty independent, back in the 90s; as soon as I could I left childhood behind like a bad habit. I’m not a good candidate for regression. If anything I get more responsible when I go back.

What I always notice is leaving.

It’s stronger now that my mother and her boyfriend are talking about selling his house and hers and moving closer to town, somewhere that won’t have stairs, somewhere just for the two of them.

It makes me jealous, and hopeful on their behalf, but for me it’s also a little bit sad.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve never wanted to move back to that house, and I’d only be half-sad if it burned to the ground tomorrow. A good dollop of that would be because I’m too far away to watch the flames. Terrible things happened there, for years, and I’m well quit of the place.

But thinking of never seeing it again makes me feel a puzzled nostalgia.

A better writer than I am might be able to wrap this up with a pat ending, something that would tie a bow around how lonely it is to realize that you’re well past the part of your life lived at home, waiting to burst into the world with endless possibility. If I knew my craft, I might be able to serve you a moral lesson with a side of advice.

If this weren’t already in the list of the top ten longest pieces I’d published, I would add a really good recipe here, because I did learn one, but that will have to wait for another day.

As it is, I’m just going to say that I was grateful for the opportunity to see everyone for Christmas and New Year’s, and glad of the memories and the food and the chance to see all these people I love. I’m sure as I recombobulate my brain this winter I’ll have more to say — some of it may be more coherent.

I’m also going to say that I’m grateful for the opportunity to stay home next year.

We’ll stay here for Christmas,
You can count on us.
You can fight, and drink all night,
And yell, and scream, and cuss.
Christmas eve will find us
Home and eating pie.
Yes, we’ll stay here for Christmas,
We’ll see you in July.

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

I still write sometimes, and I have a buttload of already-written stuff. So there you go.

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