"Are you excited to be going home?" Ray asked. I had to stop and think for a moment about how to answer.
We were nearing my hometown in Oklahoma, and while I looked forward to the time we'd spend there, it was the word "home" that tripped me up.
I left that town nearly fifty years ago; it's been a long time since I've thought of it as home. My parents are long dead. The house I grew up in has passed through many owners. Homes and lawns have replaced the woods and orchard where I once played.
And yet Stillwater, Oklahoma, the place where my story began, is still something to me. During the four days we spent there recently, I kept returning in my mind to Ray's question, thinking about what "home" does mean to me, where my home is—after living in nine cities or towns in five states and one territory—and
where my town of origin fits into the picture.
The questions were even more sharply drawn, because we'd just visited another town I once called home: Lawrence, Kansas, where I lived for six years while attending graduate school. Though I knew at the time Lawrence wouldn't be my permanent home, I literally put down roots, planting a big garden and filling my backyard and window boxes with flowers.
From my pretty little Cape Cod on a leafy street, I could walk to campus and to the Co-op to buy tempeh-burgers and cheese. I got to know my neighbors—a mix of students, working couples and a trio of elder women who spent summer evenings sitting in lawn chairs on Mrs. Wingert's driveway, discussing the events of the day and of their long lives.
While classes, research and teaching consumed most of my days, my cohorts and I found plenty of time for concerts, art exhibits, midnight movies, two-stepping and Western swing at a local dance hall, and some of the most imaginative and all-out fun parties I've ever been to. I threw parties, too, and cooked impromptu dinners for friends.
Life in Lawrence was rich, I was connected to a community and busy with fulfilling work and play.
I felt at home.
So when Ray and I passed through the town on our way to Oklahoma last month, I was excited about that homecoming, having been back only once or twice since I moved away thirty years ago. It didn't take long, though, for me to realize the Lawrence of today is not the place where my memories reside, even though some of my old haunts are unchanged or at least recognizable.
The unique combination of people, places and pastimes that once made Lawrence feel like my home has morphed into something equally interesting and appealing but foreign to me.
What, then, of my hometown Stillwater, which certainly has changed at least as much in forty-seven years as Lawrence has in thirty-three? Would I find anything there that spoke to me of home and belonging?
On the way into town, Ray asked if I wanted to drive by my family's old house. I didn't—not yet. I knew from previous visits that the split-level my parents meticulously decorated and cared for had fallen into disrepair, the brick retaining walls crumbling, the flower beds filled with weeds. Seeing it would only remind me of what is no more, not what remains. So we drove on.
Passing through town, I caught glimpses of memory-triggering landmarks: a rock stairway I used to climb on my walk home from school, the hill where my brother took me sledding. Hints of the person I used to be and the people and events that shaped me. Still, though, no sense of being home.
Then, a few days into our stay, we visited my cousin Margaret and her husband Joe at their home overlooking Boomer Lake. Built by Margaret's parents—my Aunt Opal and Uncle A.J.—in 1961, it's the house where my cousins spent their teen years and our families shared special occasions and everyday get-togethers.
As I toured the house with Margaret, I quickly realized it's no mere storehouse of remnants from the distant past. Yes, there are family heirlooms and framed pictures of grandparents and parents, but there are also photos of Margaret and Joe's children and grandchildren and a cozy nook where Margaret now works on her writing projects.
Margaret and Joe's home is a vital, evolving place that not only reflects their past, but also supports the life they're living now. Seeing that, I began to think differently about my hometown, a train of thought that continued as we left their house and went to dinner at a trendy restaurant in what was once the department store where I bought my first bra.
The old Katz store is barely recognizable now, and after spending an enjoyable evening talking writing with Margaret over spinach salads, I didn't wish it any other way. My hometown doesn't need to stay the same, I concluded. It just needs to contain bits and pieces to remind me of its place in my history. And if it I can enjoy and appreciate it for what it's become, just as I appreciate family members and old friends as they are now, my connection to it deepens.
My musings on home took another turn later that week, when I realized the place in Stillwater that feels most like home to me is a place I never lived. This dawned on me as we celebrated a young family member's birthday at Brentwood condominium complex, where my sister-in-law lives. The condo Joy lives in is the one my father bought when he downsized and lived in for the rest of his life. It's the place I came "home" to when I visited my dad in his later years, and the place I brought Ray to when he first visited Stillwater with me.
After my dad died and my brother and sister-in-law moved into the condo, Brentwood became the center for family weddings, graduation parties, birthday and holiday celebrations. It's the place Ray chose for our wedding nineteen years ago.
When we returned from our travels, I thought again about Ray's question—about how it felt to visit Stillwater and how it felt to come back to our home in the woods, to the community where we feel connected and content, where we're making memories and living fulfilling lives.
Finally, I had an answer.
"Yes, it was good to go home, and now it's good to be home."
And now, a question for you: How do you define home, and where do you feel most at home?
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.