Since leaving Los Angeles for college, I’ve thought a lot about what “home” means to me. When I was a kid, home was a place: a one-story, ranch-style house with a white picket fence, a dog named Charlie, and a couple cats. It was the place where I ate, slept, did homework, did nothing, watched TV, got upset, grew up. Home was where my mom made cinnamon toast when I was sick. It was where my dad whispered before bed: Are you my Scooter? Are you my Skippy? Are you my Spice Girl? Are you my Peetie Pie? Home was where I closed my eyes at night, but as I got older I realized it wasn’t where I felt comfortable.
In college, home was Olivia Josselyn House, the dorm I lived in for two years with my roommate Alice. Home was a place but mostly it was a feeling. It was sometimes ‘I,’ but almost always ‘We.’ Home with Alice was where I learned to talk about depression without embarrassment. In our home I felt comfortable sometimes being a lazy student, and realized I like beer as much as gin and tonic. With Alice, I came to understand that ‘home’ meant being close to another person.
Last June my parents moved to a postage-stamp town just north of Poughkeepsie, near the restaurant where I work. The family home is now a two-story prefab with a view of the Hudson. As of November, home includes a puppy named Georgie. My parents talk about missing our old dog, who died lying down on a warm patch of sunlit grass in the backyard of our Los Angeles house, a few days before they drove cross-country. Sometimes I feel badly that I don’t miss Charlie as much as my parents do, or that I don’t miss Los Angeles at all. But these memories don’t carry as much weight for me because at the time I felt displaced in a way that grayed my experience. I was depressed, though I didn’t realize it then.
A few weeks ago I went to lunch with my mom. We’ve gotten better at talking in the past three years. Distance helped with that. She asked if I felt that I owned my childhood. “No,” I said. “I don’t.” My mom didn’t come from money and had little emotional support. She left home at 17 and lived for a year with her neighbors, a younger couple and their kids. She said she never had a sense of owning her childhood, that “home” was not hers.
Once when I was staying with my parents during break, I told my dad that I was going home. “You mean back to school,” he said. “This is your home.” It wasn’t harsh the way he said it, but sounded more like a question. It had been maybe six months since they’d moved and neither of them felt that Staatsburg was home yet. It wasn’t the house where they raised my sister and me. There was no wooden swing set decayed with use, no door frame recording when my sister and I were two and three and four feet tall. I got the sense that my dad needed to hear me say it out loud, that this new house was home.
Home used to be Los Angeles but isn’t anymore. Home used to be Joss but then Alice transferred to UCLA and so these days our home is mostly over the phone. Vassar is still home, but now that means a bedroom I don’t share with anyone else. Sometimes a friend’s house and the mega-bed we make by pushing her two living room couches together to watch movies is home. Now, home is occasionally ‘We’ but mostly it is ‘I.’
A few days before winter break ended, my mom and I were cuddled on the living room couch with Georgie sandwiched between us while my dad packed away Christmas tree decorations. There was a Spotify folk playlist going and my mom and I dozed off to “Blackbird.” We slept for about an hour before getting up to help move furniture so that my dad could get the tree outside. For a few hours, none of us had emails to send or paperwork to fill out or errands to run. No one was making plans for later that day, or deciding what to cook for dinner. The thick morning fog had lifted, leaving a clear view of the Hudson. The French doors to the backyard were open and Georgie sprinted outside, sliding over the ice and sniffing around my dad as he dragged the tree. It was a rare, unstructured afternoon and had the feeling of home even if the house itself isn’t home yet.