"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?
9/21/2016 08:42:40 am
This is your best post yet, Nancy! It made me realize that I still don't feel at home here in Illinois and still miss my old life in Michigan. I loved your photos, too!
9/26/2016 01:35:59 pm
Sometimes it takes a while, Sally. I hope you find as happy a home in Illinois as you had in Michigan.
9/21/2016 09:14:54 am
I just loved this. Thank you for sharing yourself with me here, and on your memoir. After reading your memoir, being able to put some faces and even a couple of places Behind your descriptions is wonderful.
9/26/2016 01:37:04 pm
I'll be interested in hearing what thoughts arise about home, Susan.
9/21/2016 02:40:12 pm
Nancy I know a little about your family from previewing your book last summer so I was delighted to read this segment I loved the 1997 wedding photo of you and Ray.
9/26/2016 01:37:53 pm
We're happy about that, too, Kitty! And happy that you call Croton home for at least part of the year.
9/21/2016 07:15:50 pm
Oh, Nancy, this takes me back. I don't know when I'll go to Stillwater again now that my mom has moved to Houston. It's a very strange feeling. Seeing your photos of your uncle, whom you may recall I came to know, and also your cousin John and of course your parents; thinkng what it means to move so far from "home" I've now lived in Croton longer than I lived in Stillwater and am definitely a New Yorker. I too have a lot of homes, with the Pacific Northwest also tugging at me. I guess this is what happens when you get as old as we are!
9/26/2016 01:39:38 pm
I guess so, Michelle! Although some of our friends have never left Stillwater, and I always wonder what that must be like.
9/22/2016 02:40:20 pm
Ironically, I am sitting in my brother's condo, in Brentwood, as I write this. We took a ride through Stillwater today, revisiting places of interest. Drove by the following houses: your's, mine, Michelle's, Sarah's and others. Tomorrow, I go home to Texas.
9/26/2016 01:41:07 pm
Interesting synchronicity, Cindi! How did Stillwater look to you? Going back for our reunion next year will put another spin on it, too.
9/28/2016 06:43:27 pm
Your question about home intrigues me. Growing up with a father in the Air Force we moved often, and yet I grew up, 1st-8th grade, in Alaska. Graduated from high school in Hawaii. Home is how you make it yours, not where you live. We have lived in Michigan for 40 years, 2.5 years in Newaygo. I feel this home now is where I feel the most settled and content. The area here is so beautiful and full of water sources. This my home now, no question about it! Glad you live here too!
10/5/2016 06:39:40 am
Aw, this makes me tearful, to read about your remembrances. They're so heartfelt. And tearful because I share some of your feelings about what it's like to go back home. I was born in Texas and visits there in past years have been sweet, but on my twice-a-year visits to family in Georgia, where I grew up, I feel like I have an identity crisis. It's something I think about a lot but I also know how lucky I am to have an adopted Michigan "family" that keeps me warm and loved in between visits back home.
10/5/2016 12:12:56 pm
This sure was a fun read and also poignant in a shared way. Having grown up in Stillwater and also living for thirteen years in Lawrence, I have experienced some of the same feelings. I, though, am not a writer and could never capture the same sense of nostalgia and explanation of home. Thank you Nancy for tugging the heart strings yet again.
10/26/2016 07:12:05 am
I wondered if any of this would resonate with you, Emily. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Hi Nan, this resonated for me in Peru this morning. I just had a dream that I walked into my childhood home without asking the people that live there now. They were gracious hosts when they found out I was there and I promised I would seek their permission the next time I wanted to visit.
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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.