Losing Home

Photographs: Gwen Walstrand

I NEVER KEPT COUNT OF ALL THE TIMES I drove from New York to Ohio. In the twenty-five years since I moved away, it’s been a lot, because home was like a magnet whose insistent attraction pulled me across four hundred miles of mid-Atlantic hills as if I were ball bearings on glass. As soon as I got back from a visit to Ohio, I’d start thinking about the next time I would return. The ability to reinsert myself into the house, the town, the countryside that gave birth to me was a thick, comfortable joy. But this time was different. After this trip there would be no home to which to return. My mother had sold our house.

I took the old route, Route 6, across the top of Pennsylvania. It felt appropriate to drive along a superseded road that itself took you into the past, through one-stoplight towns of brick hotels and lunch cars that don’t look like any place they make in this twenty-first century. Because in going west to Ohio, I was going back into my history, to the childhood home — and even, it seemed possible, the childhood itself — that would soon no longer be mine.

What spread before the car’s windshield was enchanting in its yesteryearness, but imaginary billboards kept shimmering in the distance. They were the kind that tout the New and Improved that is now concocted to replace the old scenery. Obviously this was a projection of my tremulous inner state — not to mention my persistent fear of the American penchant for destroying anything that dared to get older than a decade or two.

The desire to move, to leave home and never look back, is carried deep in the national DNA. After all, unless we sprang from what little native rootstock was not pulled up and crushed by European interlopers who could not bear to share the promised land with the people who already called it home, we all came from somewhere else. The current carpeting of every last field and forest with subdivisions is testimony in part to the fact that not everyone is hopelessly stuck on her birthplace. As is the attempt to create, all at once, a new town that will purportedly be just like an old town. The attractiveness of “better” may be a remnant of the child’s hesitancy before that vast array of candy at the store — which one will taste the sweetest, which? And if it turns out not to be better, but only bigger or newer, we will probably think the solution lies in moving yet again.

If we could be buried in our backyards, right next to the hammock, most of us would forgo the local cemetery, although anywhere in our hometowns would do when it comes to that. But only after we’ve gone out to see what else there is. Americans, eh? What a perverse bunch. We may forever love the ancient hills of home, but still feel beset by a restlessness to find some sunny California, either of the mind or the map.

ACROSS THE ROAD ATLAS I WENT toward the dreaded assignment: to pack up the archives of my first twenty years, and those of my parents and miscellaneous forebears, from where they had been stored in the basement, the attic, the many closets and drawers and shelves of the Tudor revival house we had loved so deeply it seemed to love us back. It was witness and shelter, provider and backdrop: sweet sixteens; several youthful groping sessions on the velvet couches downstairs while parents slept upstairs (yeah, right); two weddings; one lovely spring memorial party under a tent, with flowers floating in the punch bowls, for the father who would have loved to have been there with all his friends in the shady green yard he had worked so hard to make peaceful and lush. Dozens of exuberant Christmases, with their package-strewn living room and champagne breakfasts, and countless cocktail parties and dinners and July Fourth post-parade brunches. It was a place to be happy in, despite the occasional house call by the dour German pediatrician carrying his black bag to the bedside of one or another feverish little girl. It was a house that contained the echo of forty years’ worth of periodic tears.

Nothing prepared me for turning the corner at last and seeing, spearing the soil of a flower bed on this corner lot in a gracious 1929 development, a sign announcing the pending sale of the building thereon. As if it were a commercial transaction, and not something designed to bring surprising pain to the heart of a middle-aged woman who thought she was no longer susceptible to the type of searing emotion she once apparently felt pretty much every waking minute of every day, to judge by the contents of the high school diaries that now must be reread so it can be determined whether they belong in a trash bag on the curb or packed into the car for the journey back, in one week’s time, to the present.

Going through those boxes was a voyage of rediscovery, of coming face to face with things I had once known well but had apparently forgotten as I conducted what I now came to see as a surface life, running concurrently over the subterranean life of my past. There were passionate friendships with girls I met on vacation, which spawned several months of long letters, each sealed with wax or stickers, drawn or collaged upon, filled with oblique references to deep matters of the heart that we must have fervently discussed while applying baby oil to each other’s backs on the beach. Then the letters sputtered to silence, until they were replaced with another burst of equally eruptive missives to other girls. These contained advice about what to do about boys whose names now perplexed me: Who was this person who filled my head for months of 1972?

The most abrupt recollection, however, was also the simplest, for it was overhead, underfoot, all around me. This house itself: it was nothing less than my mother’s colossal lifework. Beyond raising her girls, some volunteer work, and the occasional European trip to look forward to, there was mainly the house. She had visions of its potential, and my youth was spent amid a sea of dog-eared House and Gardens, stacks of Architectural Digests with pictures ripped out. Her girls’ bedrooms each had a color theme carried out by vibrant wallpaper — mustard yellow or pink-flowered with kelly-green vines or navy blue with tiny white sprigs — and custom-made bedding to match. The master bathroom became a sparely serene retreat with travertine marble, two sinks with modernist chrome goose-necked faucets, and a shower with a teak seat that dropped from the wall, enclosed by a silver curtain. I had never seen such luxury in someone’s house before, and now I know why my father poured himself a drink and read the newspaper before he looked at the day’s mail. Its weight of bills would cause his face to get longer and longer with each envelope he opened then set aside.

Here was the patio my mother enlarged and repaved in brick — there was an awful lot of brick in this particular corner of Akron — that radiated out around the large shade maple (into which I climbed as a girl to write dreadful short stories about how no one understood the protagonist). She designed a keyhole-shaped pool and fountain so there would always be the gentle sound of plashing. We and our guests spent every rainless hour possible out there, and it became the test I set for every boy I brought home: if he did not find the patio one of the most idyllic spots in the world, I would know he did not suit me. He could not belong here.

I also remembered that I used to take down and look at my parents’ wedding album so often and so deeply I became convinced I was there, perhaps at the end of the conga line of smiling friends in satin cocktail dresses. And of course I sort of was, in the intense gaze of joy the newlyweds shared on the day they took a swan dive into their future. Looking at it again finally released the weeping that had only threatened at the sight of that for sale sign. I sat in what we called the Orange Room, the bedroom I for a short while shared with my older sister when we first moved in, and cried until I sounded like a five year old whose balloon was now a thumbtack against the clouds. Everywhere I went I was putting into Mayflower boxes the evidence that my parents had been truly, madly in love. That it was now gone, because he was gone, and soon too the house they had made the manifestation of that love, seemed beyond need to note in its transparent simplicity. Maybe that’s why the fact stunned me when I ran into its immovability at speed. It’s all so damn brief.

Of course it is. Or else it wouldn’t be so sweet, would it, or something that I would so desperately want to grab. I mean, just look at the piles of letters from insistent suitors I no longer remember, the anguished verse of a girl who did not know how to get what she wanted, the photos of happy times with friends or on vacations in places that now are ruined, the rejections — why saved? — from schools, jobs, and those who refused to be suitors, the wistful mementos from trips taken by ancestors I cannot even name.

I AM ATTACHED TO MY PAST, and so to the house in which it occurred. How often I longed to return home — from camp, then from boarding school, then from college, from New York.

Nostalgia is a virus that runs in the family. My parents both went east to school, but seemed unable to resist Ohio’s call; it sure enough drew them back from New York, from Boston. My aunt tells me that on the day she was due to move from the Utah house in which she raised three children, she sat on the floor in the echoing living room, weeping without end, until her antisentimental husband stood over her and asked, “So, um, how long is this going to take?”

If moving is in our veins, we sons of pioneers, daughters of immigrants, why then is homesickness such an unholy ache in the gut? For some time now, we have been reading of our “increasingly mobile society,” as if the modern world had somehow shaken off the morbidly antique notion of Home Sweet Home. But just as teleportation once seemed just around the futuristic corner, so too that increasingly mobile society remains more putative than real: the mass of Americans live no farther from where they grew up than fifty miles. There is duplicity in what we are, expressed in a mighty instinct toward self-preservation that coexists in the same cells as the urge, say, to jump out of planes at ten thousand feet. On second thought, perversity is not just an American quality; it is human.

I have a friend, a woman who grew up in Pittsburgh. Then she (like so many) moved on to another life, or two or three, in another place. Toward the end of the ’60s, she went back to visit the street where she was raised. Even though she was armed with the knowledge that the apartment building in which she had spent her childhood had been destroyed in the catastrophes of that city’s race riots, it was not until she stopped in front of its blackened remains that she felt it: the sucker punch of loss, as hard to stand up from as the death of someone you knew.

That is because home is physical before it can be metaphorical. It is also personal while being collective. Go figure that. It seeps into your body as you grow, and when it is gone you commune with a ghost. No one else knows what it feels like to you, even if they have their own séances from time to time with the dead places of their own pasts.

For me, every room, every tablecloth in every drawer, every serving bowl and Easter decoration and ancient sled drawn from its burial mound of storage starts a projector whirling. (Never mind the thirty-two actual slide carousels, each of which is a Kodachrome passport to memoryville, us in full ’60s mufti and squinting against the sun on trips to Williamsburg, Oglebay Park, Fire Island; at someone’s baptism, for which my mother would demand sculpted sherbet roses as the true and just dessert; at every event that made me who I am.) Who could have imagined there would be so much to remember, so much that had remained packed away?

I go outside and walk down the block in this most perfect of neighborhoods and see the house where lived my parents’ friends, a family so close to us we called them Aunt and Uncle and went on vacations together. Someone else lives there now, and they are busy gathering their own memories, which will live unrecognized among the bricks and flowers and the gentle air that invades the porch during the twilight hour given over to martinis and the reading of the newspaper. Then one day, they will feel it all rushing over them, while they box the books and the kitchen pots. They too will think about why it has to come to an end. Around the corner, and there’s the house of other friends, now elderly and no longer given to the kind of large backyard blowout where the grownups’ constant laughter mixed with Dixieland and the little kids — us — took their first sips of frozen whiskey sours when no one looked.

I think the behaviorist branch of psychology may have an explanation for the strength of this glue that sticks us evermore to the childhood home. It is the place where we receive so many “primary reinforcers,” the stuff we need most in order to live. Food, sleep, safety, comfort, touch. Pleasures, too, like gifts under the tree or a Bach concerto issuing from the hi-fi or the hum of a distant lawnmower on an August evening or the slam of a car door signaling both the promise of an arrival and the possibility of a departure after which one can go home again.

When in a few days I finish packing up, to hit the faster, newer I-80 to home (another home, which will also inevitably refresh this melancholy when I have to leave it or it leaves me), it may all strike me with the finality of a lid closing forever on a trunk, the key handed to a new owner. The child who is still present within me will cry, or maybe throw an untoward fit. But the behavior, like all things children are compelled to do, will not change anything. Ever insistent, I will think: I needed the place to be there always, somehow, and not just in my heart. I want actual bricks, bearing singe marks of originating fire.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of five books of nonfiction, most recently The Secret History of Kindness. She lives in the Catskill Mountains of New York.