We are visiting the United States for a month – the longest return trip since moving to Central Europe two years ago. When people ask me where I am going, I pause for a second. To say “I’m going to the United States” seems much too formal for a place I know intimately and associate with unconditionally. But I worry to respond “I’m going home” conveys some implication that this current place which houses me is not, and will never be, “home”.
At dinner, Pat and I speak freely, unencumbered by any implications of the words we chose. “When we get home, let’s eat at that little restaurant in Boulder we like.” “And when we get home, let’s visit the Turkish baths. It will be cooler by then.” “Are the kids coming home for Christmas? Or should we go home to see them?” There’s no exclusivity associated with “home”.
One day we were hiking in the mountains of Colorado and came upon a group from Ireland. When we introduced ourselves, a woman replied, “Ah, Callahan – you must be from county Cork.” At the time, I said to Pat – “I guess the Irish really don’t move around much.” How quaint is a country which can isolate your place of birth – and eventual death – based on your family name? It is a home of complete and utter clarity.
Most of the rest of us have a complicated relationship with the idea of home. I certainly do. I grew up on the Jersey shore, attended college in Michigan, accepted my first job in New York, and ultimately relocated to North Carolina and then Colorado. In three of these states we added a child to our family. Most recently home became Bratislava and now Budapest. My life is a tapestry woven with threads contributed by each of these places. And while my husband and I carry a similar definition of home created over a shared lifetime, our cloth is not identical. His life growing up in Michigan and mine on the Jersey shore created unique variations obvious to those who know us.
While this can seem terribly confusing, it isn’t. Home walks in through the back door without knocking and generally unexpected. Something tweaks my memory and suddenly it is standing next to me. The smell of salt soaked wood will always be the Asbury Park boardwalk. The Alps nestled up next to Ljubljana evoked, to me, the Rocky Mountains. While walking the shoreline of Slovenia, the sea gulls circled the fishing boats and squawked relentlessly. For just a blink I was a young girl buying fish with my mother on the docks in Point Pleasant. Once hiking in the Tatras mountains of Slovakia, we stumbled upon a mountain festival. A man sang a John Denver song. Listening to the opening riff of Country Road, I felt a lump in my throat. I stood there speechless as home held my hand. In the midst of an unsettling time, it stopped by to comfort me.
This week we are headed home. In a month we will return home. We are not actually leaving or returning. We realize when we least expect it, home will stop by to visit.