We Americans have long celebrated the idea of home. Think of Dorothy clicking her heels together in “The Wizard of Oz” while saying the magic incantation that will return her to Kansas: “There’s no place like home! There’s no place like home!” Remember that line from the song “Home, Sweet Home”: “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home!”
We may romanticize home, but meanwhile, we move from one place to another more than almost any other people in the world. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the average American changes residences about 12 times during his lifetime. I counted up the times I’ve picked up stakes and came up with 21 relocations.
Despite all of this shuffling about, we create a home, in part, with the things we carry with us. We may move from an apartment in Manhattan to a townhouse in Phoenix, but we begin to make that empty and alien space into a home as soon as we unload our furniture and belongings from the moving van. The breakfront that once belonged to a great-grandmother, a bookshelf built by an uncle, an old sofa that’s just as comfortable as ever: They transform the new and the strange into the familiar.
In my case, my books also help convert wherever I live into a home. These volumes surround me even as I write these words, old friends and new, some unvisited for years, some lying even now on the floor or table beside me, all beloved, all a part of who I am.
Home Is Where the Heart Is
Were you to visit my home today, which I rent from my daughter—I act as a caretaker as well—you might wonder about the blocks, Lincoln logs, and Playmobil figurines arranged in a village on the floor in the den. You might assume the grandchildren are here (they aren’t) or that in my spare time, I play with the toy soldiers and cowpokes (I don’t). No—when the grandkids returned to Pennsylvania a month ago, they begged me to leave the fort and village intact, and I’ve done so.
Those toys aren’t in my way, and, as one visitor remarked, “I think it adds a certain ambiance to the place.”
That comment about ambiance may well be true, but that log cabin and block fortress with its mounted riders and armed guards bring my grandchildren to mind. Every day, I remember the excitement on their faces during the village’s construction and hear their voices as they tell stories about these plastic figurines.
Home is where love lives. In my home right now, love lives in the little village on the floor of the den.
Time and Place
Sometimes home is where we once lived.
Adults who grew up in the same house and town or city understand this idea. A man who was born and raised in the small community of Boonville, North Carolina, surrounded by cousins and close friends, left after college to work in Baltimore. He has a house there, a wife and children, and a good job, but even at age 40, should someone ask him, “So where’s home?” he may pause before replying.
His address may be in Baltimore, but a part of his heart is 400 miles south in Boonville.
So how can we tell if our place of residence is a home?
Whether we live in a farmhouse built by our great-grandparents, an apartment in Queens, a cottage in Charleston, or a newly-constructed home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., that looks like the other 50 houses in the neighborhood, there’s a simple test that tells us whether we’re living in a home.
It’s Friday evening, the end of a rough week, and you get out of the car, go to the front door, insert your key in the lock, and step inside. You close the door, carry your bags of groceries to the kitchen or your briefcase to the study, and find yourself shrugging off the day along with your coat.
And that’s when the magic begins. You may scarcely notice it, but when you closed that door, you shut out the world. You pour yourself a glass of wine, talk over the day with the family, and help make supper. If you’re alone, you open a can of soup and watch the evening news or sort through the mail while the soup’s heating up on the stove. It’s routine, sure, but you feel safe here in this abode of warmth and cheer, this little citadel of civilization. Here you are, alone or with loved ones, in a place of comforts as familiar to you as your face in the mirror.
And there you have it.