On Being at Home, Part 1: The Place From Which I Escaped

As I sit on the porch of my former residence in New Orleans this week, watching the streetcars go by, I realize that though it’s been five years since I’ve lived here (and 15 years since that fateful first visit), I always feel at home here. There are three places that I can say that about. The first is, of course, Massachusetts, where I grew up, and where I still have spent the majority (about two thirds) of my life. The other is Columbia, SC, where I spent five of the most important years of my life, years without which I could not possibly have ended up where I am today. It is impossible to speak of that time as “only” five years, because so much happened during that time. Likewise the two years I actually lived in New Orleans. It’s hard to explain, but I knew after my first visit to New Orleans in 1995, that this place was going to hold a significant place in my future.

I started reflecting on why these places hold such significance for me. True, I haven’t lived many other places, but there are places I have lived, like Tampa (with apologies to my friends there), where I’m not sure that I could have ever felt at home. I realized that these places do hold something in common. They are each places that marked significant turning points in my life. Massachusetts is home in a much more ephemeral sense. The town in which I spent the first years of my conscious life—thought I now have almost no connection with it—still seems more like home than the town in which I lived most of my time “growing up.” I always felt an outsider there, which I was reminded of when I attended my nephew’s high school graduation there a couple of weeks ago. Any affection I had for that town lasted perhaps only the two-and-a-half years it took me to finish grade school there. After that it turned into a personal hell which I would soon have to escape from by going to school elsewhere. Yet, my interest in books and literature stems in many ways from that time. It was the librarians who provided an important way station for me, where I could escape for at least a little while. They nurtured me and knew me in ways that many of my teachers didn’t or couldn’t. My “hometown” would really only truly become important as the home base from which I engaged a broader world. My desire not to be there led me to so many different places, meeting friends and having experiences that I would not have had if my urge hadn’t been so often to be elsewhere. Already then it was beginning to become clear that I was destined to be the most traveled of my family.

It’s interesting that the place which I spent so much time escaping over the years, has now become a place I frequently visit. It’s not because people in town know me, or that it’s a place of “old friends” (I said ‘hello’ to my former next-door neighbor there a couple of weeks ago, and it was clear that he had no idea who I was). Rather, I go there because my family is there. I go there because my sister and her family (and, at times, my parents) live in that same house we grew up in. Now, strangely, I’m content to just stay there with my niece and nephews and my family, playing games, talking or watching TV. There is no reason to escape. It is a place more special and more “home” now because I have watched my niece and nephews grow up there, not because I grew up there. This home is the place where I left my family behind for a different world, and also where I learned, however late, that I could love and cherish my family in my sincere, but still imperfect way.