I spent the first four years of my life living in a house I can barely remember. After that, my family moved into a brand new place we built for ourselves. We didn’t physically build it with our own hands, but my parents – both engineers – certainly had a heavy hand in all of the planning, down to my mother’s insistence that there must be a light above the bathtub.
Brick and white siding. Black shutters on the windows, although I spent most of my life absently assuming they were green. Concentric tiers of landscaping falling away from the front of the house. A huge green wreath above the garage and garland strung across the porch with bright red bows at Christmas time. Kitchen cabinets built by my uncle. The ghost of handprints at the bottom of the stairs where too many eager children have used the wall to stop their momentum. The heights marked on the wooden beam just inside the doorway of the storage room and signed with our carefully practiced but still childish scrawl.
That’s the house I grew up in. That’s the neighborhood that sprung up around us and weathered from shiny new houses to lived-in homes. That’s where I learned to ride a bike, despite the fact that the driveway was too steep to ride up without crashing into the garage door. That kitchen is where I learned to cook from my dad’s willy nilly concoctions and my mom’s meticulous recipes. That backyard is where I spent many a barefoot day with my head stuck in the clouds, trying to swing high enough on the playset to brush them with my toes. I learned to read and write there. I spent entire days with my legs kicked up on the back of the couch and my head hanging upside down off of the edge of the seat with a book in hand. I had every adventure imaginable in that basement when it was all concrete and beams, and then I helped choose paint and carpet when my dad finished it by hand. I have spent hours in the front room at the piano, for nine years it was forced and now it is only ever because I miss the keys. So many Saturdays have consisted of my mother sitting at the same piano and her expert melodies wafting through the whole sunny house. I’ve spent countless summer evenings on the wide porch, stuck in a book while my dad worked on crosswords next to me. And plenty of stormy nights under the shelter of the roof giving scores to the streaks of lightning that shattered the sky.
That house is the place where the ceiling fan in the northeast bedroom will never quite be balanced because I clipped a book light on it and had dance parties. The door to that bedroom takes a little extra force to latch closed because of the battles to keep the boys out of our fortress when we strove to make the girls the supreme rulers of the club. The couch is slightly discolored where I sat too many times with my wet hair draped over it after a shower, eagerly sprinting upstairs during commercials of The Amazing Race so I could be ready for bedtime and still not miss the show. Even though my dad filled it in, I can still see the place in the bathroom wall where my friend fainted and dented it with her head. I know the exact sound of the front door as it opens into the house and the precise angles that the sunlight spills onto the floor. The creaking of the garage door, and the clunk of the sump pump. The way the wind whistles around the corner of the house and where to check if the cat’s bladder has failed her at the sound of thunder. I have sat on the highest point of the roof and stared down into the pit of the sump pump under the basement. If there is any nook or cranny of that house that I have not explored, I would be very hard pressed to find it.
That is home.
Shortly after we moved in, the city planted ash tree saplings all the way down the street. I remember being bummed that I wasn’t going to grow up in a neighborhood where I could climb the trees, but I would sit and daydream about when I came back one day with my own kids and the fledgling trees would be sturdy and weathered. Perfect for a different generation to strive upward through the branches to see the ground from a new perspective.
By the time I outgrew my desire to be a deft outdoor adventurer, the trees were established, but there were no branches low enough to climb well. All the way down the street, two rows of ash trees stood like sentinels. Tall, slender trunks stretching up to a globe of emerald leaves. In the fall, they always seemed disappointing when they started to change color because the outside layer of leaves would become a brownish purple while the inside was a sickly end of summer green. But slowly, as the autumn wore on, the color would bleed inward, lightening as it went, until finally looking down the street was looking down twin lines of fireballs. The outer leaves were still purple, but there were bright red, dappled orange, and at the center brilliant gold. If you were patient with them, you would see that after most trees had already given up their colorful coverings, ours were truly magnificent.
You may have noticed that I have been describing these trees in past tense.
This past winter, I went home from college to spend time with my family. On entering my neighborhood, I felt the euphoria of the familiarity until I turned onto my street. I couldn’t immediately place what was different, but it looked somehow desolate. Bare. It was only when I drove all the way up the hill and parked outside my house that I looked at the grass and saw the stump of the once majestic tree forlornly peeking out of the ground. I glanced around and realized they were all gone. The whole sloping street had lost its parallel welcoming committee. I almost cried on the spot.
I ran inside, aghast that no one had thought to give me a heads up before a staple of my childhood was dismembered and removed from my home. It was only a tree, but it was a tree I had reliably come home to for fifteen years. I was completely devastated by its absence.
If you keep up with the arborist culture in the Midwest, you may be aware that there has been a little bug called an ash bore ransacking its way through the very types of trees that once lined my street. This pest has not yet reached my home, and it could be quite a while before it does, but the city decided rather than wait until the trees died, to take care of them before the bore could arrive. So away they went.
If we’re going to be completely honest, I’m not entirely over it. They’ve since taken the stump out and filled in the miniature crater it left behind, but there are still no trees. Nothing to shade the sidewalks or soften the harsh lines of the street. My neighbors stuck a large stick in their empty plot of dirt, but it didn’t fool anyone.
Here’s the thing though: part of the deal was that although the city took the trees away, they are also planting new ones in their stead. They won’t be the same ash trees, but soon enough there will be new saplings lining the street once again. The houses are a little more worn and the yards have more personality than they did last time the trees were small, but that won’t stop the young plants from growing.
I don’t know what they’ll look like or how they’ll change the character of our neighborhood, but the point is that they will grow. They will put on their annual rings, stretch toward the sky, provide cool havens of shade when the sun beats the rest of the sidewalk to molten torture to bare feet. Birds will sit in them and poop on the cars parked underneath. There will be twin rows again, stretching down the street, budding together, changing color together, shedding their leaves together.
That house will still be home. That street will still be familiar. The details will shift, but that’s life. It trundles on forward, always growing, moving, changing.
My car is no longer a staple outside of our house, and I’m not a permanent staple in it anymore. The family routine doesn’t involve my spontaneous guests every other night of the week or my hogging the shower for too long. The table is set for three at most meals, not four. Life changes. It keeps moving.
It keeps growing.
I don’t live at home anymore, but I am living my own new and exciting life. In a few years, my sister will be out of the house too and get to have her own new adventures and be her own sprout. My parents will have the whole place to themselves. Plus the cat.
And yet, we won’t be gone. That house will not cease to be home. In a few years, we could return with spouses and children of our own. There could be a whole new batch of people that get to make some little slice of home in that house.
The memories that have built that home will not vacate it, and neither will its potential to create more. Home is an ever-shifting definition. It never can stay away from a place for long and once it settles in, there is no getting rid of it. And there’s an undefinable sort of comfort in that knowledge. No, that’s not quite true. Perhaps that comfort, that sense of safety and familiarity and assurance of belonging does have a name. We call it home.