The Search For Home
Part 1: The Search Begins
Excerpt from the upcoming book Home by Jesse Wolf Hardin
“There are more people wanting to break out of houses than wanting to break into them.”
“There’s no going home,” you may have heard them say. What they mean, of course, is that there’s no way to go back in time, no retreat to the comforting arms of parents who always made sure there was food on the table and the cuts on our knees healed, no way to reclaim the houses we grew up in or the innocence that attended us there.
What a terrible thought, to never be able to go home…. whatever that word has come to mean for us. Depending on the circumstances under which we left our parent’s domicile, at one time or other most of us experience a longing to return to whatever familiar landscapes — childscapes — once permitted us the feeling of being most ourselves in at least conditional safety and relative privacy. Sometimes this meant a comforting house with a protective papa and a loving mama who served both delicious foods and bountiful hugs, a fort with walls that neither ill intentioned bullies nor freezing storms could ever breach. A grandparent’s farmhouse with printed flower wallpaper and a porch with a squeaky swing. An adobe casita with a torn screen door through which the chickens always got in. Or even the basement of a red brick tenement house, featuring high windows with opaque glass that no stranger could look in. For others the buildings of our earliest memories still house either real or imagined terrors, sometimes a father’s unforgivable abuse, and in other cases simply the oppression of suburban mediocrity, of tasteless art on septic white walls. Or the stench of mildew on old carpets and the ominous clanking of the plumbing in an overcrowded apartment. For them the hunger to return is no less great, though it be to the undeveloped lots where they could play free of not only violence but from manipulation, convention and constriction. Or to a well-remembered tunnel under backyard hedgerows, beneath concealing stairs in a wilderness of alleys, or the trusted arms of neighborhood trees that conspiratorially lifted us above the line of sight of any supervising adults.
Either way, a toddler’s entire world consists of a relatively small amount of space, a playing room that also happens to be the place where they sleep, and a bathroom once it’s time for toilet training…. living as if nothing exists beyond the reach of one’s own hungering physical senses. It isn’t long however before that reality expands to include a yard, a local park and then an entire sprawling neighborhood. The growing child ventures out in all directions but returns home each time, usually well before dark. Its movements back and forth trace the spokes of a wheel whose center remains essential and intact. For most kids this reality, this home keeps on changing, but each new house or secretive yard becomes the center of their attention in turn, the center of the known universe. We want to believe, long after we’re grown and on our own, that we could go back to that center if we “really wanted to.” We’d like to believe against all evidence, that even if birds ate every bread-crumb left behind to mark our trail we could somehow find our way back. Back not just to a time but to a place where things made “sense,” where our senses were at home in the characteristic tastes, sounds, sights and smells or our childscape.
And with this taken away, perhaps we can’t go home after all. At least not to those homes, not the way we remember them. While some writers have described successful pilgrimages to the only slightly affected haunts of their childhood, for most of us such haunts no longer exist on the physical plane. If our idea of home was a tract house with pink stucco walls and sprinklers in the yard, we could be in for a surprise. Locate a recognizable spot on the map, hunt down the appropriate off-ramp and try to ignore the malls ever under construction. The whims of progress will likely have altered the landmarks you once depended on to orient yourself. Without a numbered address, one could easily get lost. Even with some surviving reference point such as a hill too tough to have been completely leveled, a church preserved by the Historical Society (exactly two and a half blocks east of the house, and you passed it twice a day being while being driven to school and back) still the land may appear foreign, reordered and remade. Even if you could find a high spot from which to judge the morphed terrain, pulling off a digital survey of this alien movie set, hold the surveyor’s mast up on the giving tops of the parked cars, shoot a line through the discount store and the waiting room of the MinitLube and determine the exact spot where you’d slept beneath cowboy or castle print covers, where wild things lived in forests beneath your bed…. even then, you might not know your home.
Which is to say, it may not look at all the way one remembered it. There could easily be fuel station trade magazines and nondairy creamers where your comic books were once stacked. The nightly walk down the hall to the bathroom may cross the floor of a hair salon, or point through the walls of several subsidized housing units, deep in the bowels of a giant forty-story complex. Reach out in the dark, but there will be no familiar light switch. Every direction would involve moving through unfamiliar terrain and arousing the suspicions of strangers.
For many of us it was never really our home anyway, perhaps just one in a long string of rentals, in a succession of inner city apartment buildings or the generic houses of the suburbs. Our conceptual home often remains hidden in the “Never-Never Land” beneath the old maple bed, a place full of secrets and dragons and bears extending down through the floor and foundation, down into the soil and the depth of the stories it could tell.
It is the soil, and sometimes only the soil that lasts– home-ground, alternatively covered with concrete or asphalt, and successive waves of structures built with the flesh of trees and powdered gypsum-rock pressed into panels. Forests are leveled, hills terraformed by men in roaring graders, and one building after another succumbs to rot and age or the fickle whims of a never-ending series of titleholders…. but beneath all this surface traffic the earth abides. Microorganisms feast in it’s fermentive hold, working away in the dark, patiently feeding on those “made to last” materials standing between it and the warming rays of the sun. As children we bond not only to the layout of the rooms, but to the particular feel and odor— even the taste— of a soil blend peculiar to the area we’re in. Our subconscious bodies register their position on a grid of electromagnetic lay-lines, as they naturally attempt to orient in each new place we move to.
For someone like myself, it’s a difficult matter to determine which of so many residences could be considered a home to return to. I remember the confidence I felt as a young boy paddling an innertube too far out into a darkening sea, depending on a recognizable shore light to guide me back. The outgoing tide threatened to take me away to my destruction, and the further out I got the more lights I could see until I could no longer tell one from the other. I’ve experienced a similar terror in the search for my roots, looking back for a single point of origin, a spot on the horizon that would tell me, unequivocally, that I was on the right road home. Instead I see a plethora of too-bright spots, accompanied by the hazy recollection of jumbled numbers on faded curb sides and tin sidewalk mailboxes. My head spins with the pictures of so many walkways, doors in dozens of different colors each leading into a place where I’d once tried to belong.
Where would I start on a search for my source-point, the geography of my mortal and spiritual beginnings? Surely not the hospital where I was born in transit west to a “promised land,” that three-hundred room concrete “birthing hut” with the aluminum chairs with their red vinyl plastic seats lining its waiting room, a sterilized stopover on the way to someplace else, just another “rest stop” on the highway that happens to have a particularly high percentage of doctors and nurses milling around. How about the first “tract home” my parents ever bought, purchased before anyone had planted a blade of grass, with many of the neighboring structures empty and the smell of freshly turned soil still strong? Definitely not the various pastel apartments with their chlorine-smelling pools with the impossibly blue bottoms, huge structures packed with folks I never met, subjected to the sometimes personal sounds of deliberate strangers bleeding through my bedrooms’ hollow walls. Nor the garages I converted into black-light bedrooms after puberty cast its spell, yearning for freedom but clinging to free meals and shower privileges.
Whenever I travel through an area I knew as a child, I longingly scan it for anything even remotely familiar after the passage of so many years. One time I found a particular house we’d once lived in, now inhabited by a family with no toys out front. I wondered if they’d let me go inside for a peek, hoping for the relief and affirmation a flashback might provide, hoping to spot something in the corner of the house that would confirm my future by verifying my past. But of course I never knocked, unwilling to face their suspicious expressions through the locked security screen or be subjected to an interview through the peephole in a closed door. Instead I took advantage of the coming darkness to walk around the side, defying the “Neighborhood Crime Watch” signs posted on its lawn. I moved slowly past windows full of well illuminated residents brushing teeth in the bathroom and watching TV in the den. I stopped at the rear corner next to the arresting smell of a honeysuckle vine still working its way up the trellis by what was once my bedroom window. Though empty, the overhead light was on, and my attention was drawn to the spot where a poster of Bardot on a Harley once hung. While the house no longer appealed to me, I felt somewhat betrayed by its easy acceptance of others. The wall was still white, flecked with little sparkly stuff just like it always was, but now it sported fluorescent pennants instead.
All in all I’ve found a half dozen of my early residences. More often though the buildings are long gone, replaced by a fast-food restaurant or “multiple-unit housing.” At best I may have located the parks where I underwent romantic rites of passage, now too brightly lit and too well patrolled to serve these darker rituals. Even the shopping center once billed as the largest of its kind proved long outdated and long since removed, sometimes making it difficult to come up with a single crucial landmark (so little exposed “land” these days, and so many “marks”). Again, it seemed as if the only constant was the soil beneath it all.
Soil, and water. Water running underground, rain flooding the streets, water escaping down cement ditches in a mad dash to the sea. The rocky cliffs I once clambered down to launch my innertube have been terraced and developed, fenced and posted, but like the soil the ocean abides. Some years ago I snuck down a driveway, past the resident’s covered motor boat and down a familiar trail to a shellfish-encrusted rock. I sucked in the collecting dark, faced the immensity of the mighty Pacific. Behind me a place I no longer knew busied itself with foreign endeavors. Ahead of me, save for two distant ships, lay an empty expanse I still associated with whatever “home” was. What else could I do, there beyond the reach of the rear porch light, but take my shirt off and jump in? Jump in, and forget about looking back.
(to be continued)
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