Home is what it makes of you

~~ Originally printed in Carrboro (NC) Free Press, March 2009 ~~

I’ve called a lot of places “home.” More than two dozen, including a couple of dorms, nine apartments, 13 houses, and a hotel room in New York City.

The house I associate most with my childhood was a Goforth contemporary in Lake Forest in Chapel Hill. I lived there over a six-year span, but even that was interrupted by a two-year jaunt to Connecticut. Cable television, with Nickelodeon and MTV, came to me in that house. My brother was born into that house. My parents agreed to divorce in that house. I had a green swing set. My bedroom was painted Dresden Blue.

It’s funny the things we remember about home. I’ve also had bedroom walls that were painted cinderblock, old timey beadboard, flimsy “wood” paneling, and flowery-wallpapered.

For two months in the winter of 1973, my parents and I shared a hotel room on Harold Square, across from Macy’s in Manhattan. I have heard stories over the years of my mother pushing me around the city in an insufficiently-sized umbrella stroller while my father was at work. For dinner we often brought in food from a nearby deli, and we ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant. I was supposedly such an anomaly – a barely-three-year-old with blue eyes and blond hair – that I would get a lot of attention from the staff. If I ate all my scrambled eggs, I would be rewarded with a parfait glass filled with maraschino cherries. I don’t remember that. What I do remember quite vividly is what we had for lunches: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with grape Tang, just my mom and me, in the hotel room.

I played in the mud at Colonial Apartments and Cheviot Avenue and Booker Creek Road. Collected eggs from the chicken house and walked on the frozen pond at River Forest in Chatham County. Pinched my nose against skunks and skunk cabbage in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Spray-painted graffiti on my wall with friends at East Poplar Avenue. Fended off fire ants and stinging caterpillars and roaches-of-unusual size in Charleston, SC. Lived right behind a big time drug dealer on Davie Circle.

Yeah, you read about that one in the papers.

I moved into an apartment my junior year of college, after two years in dorm rooms with very special dorm roommates. It was an upstairs unit in a duplex, in Sugar Grove, NC. That’s up in the mountains, right outside of Boone, one of the last stops before the Tennessee state line. There was no heat, and I paid the landlord an extra 20 bucks a month so he would take his furniture out and store it somewhere else.

Well, OK. When I say there was no heat, I mean there were only these dusty little electrical units in the fake wall paneling. You spun the knob and the coils would heat and a fan would blow the warm air into the room. I was only 19, but I didn’t trust it not to catch the whole place on fire.

I didn’t have cable. I was down in a little dip of a holler, so I couldn’t really pick up much in the way of radio signals, either. I had one of those waterproof plastic radios by the window in my shower. It got one channel, a country music station that by default or by design would play Willie Nelson’s “City of New Orleans” at the same time every morning.

There was a company of birds nesting in my bedroom wall that would wake me at all hours. The mice were so bad I had to nail plastic milk crates to the living room walls and store my food in those. I had to drive 10 miles to do my laundry.

It was my first taste of real independence. I loved that apartment. It did everything I think a home is supposed to do: It allowed, even forced, me to step into the world and experience life on life’s terms.

I’m not so much interested in sentimentalizing some wispy idea of home: “A house is made of walls and beams; a home is built with love and dreams.” Ugh. Home is where my books are. Home is where my coffee cup is. Home is where I do not have to wait for an invitation, and it is a place to which I am able to freely invite. Home is light and music, laughter and shared meals. Home is not a place to hide from the world. But home is the place I can always go to, the place where I always belong.

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