As I sit at my computer, I think of some of the sayings or expressions that people have penned about home. I wonder if I will appear to be too trivial, if I mention them, like a middle school student who begins an essay with Webster’s definition of, whatever the particular subject is. Perhaps no one cares what Miriam Webster defined something as, because there are so many online sources for definitions and descriptions. For myself, as much as I like and use social media, this blog, for instance, my “sort of smart” Android phone, Google and other search engines and my Kindle, I still prefer the heft and feel of my dictionary.
As a student in both college and seminary, I learned to keep my dictionary close enough that I could reach out my arm and get hold of it. This was an act I frequently found necessary, because if one tries to simply go on context one could get derailed. Maybe I needed a dictionary so often because I am not as smart as I think I might be. But the main reason, is that scholars who write text books seem to feel or be driven to show off their vocabularies, throwing multi-syllable words into every paragraph. I would circle those words in my own books to force myself to admit that I wasn’t quite sure what they meant and would be better off looking them up. Why all the bother about dictionaries and definitions? Because when used, they can open doors and windows to meaning that deepen understanding.
But what of home? When I was growing up, I only had two homes in eighteen years, the one on Maple Street, the home of my childhood, and the Union Villa, the home of my youth. In the years since, I have lived in more than eighteen homes, in five states in fifty years. When some people leave home, they never look back. That wasn’t me. It is just that having left home, with the change of circumstances over the years, going back was, well, difficult. I wasn’t raised in a family that did much in the way of cemetery visits, none that I knew of at any rate. So, the first time I visited my grandmother’s grave was on the day my father was buried. Two years after dad died, mom moved back to Baltimore to be close to her family. As a result, the second time I visited my father’s grave (and my hometown) was twenty four years later, when my mother was buried, next to my dad.
We had less than 40 hours to be in Onset, so it was a quick but sentimental journey and then there was so much to get back to: packing up mom’s apartment and moving everything out, going through pictures and making decisions and then everything got busy. In the months that followed, my youngest daughter graduated from high school, the other two had long flown the nest. We moved from our four bedroom, four story rental to a two bedroom apartment and prepared for my daughter’s move to Florida. A little over two years later, we were packing again and moving to a parsonage, as I had been approved and licensed as a newly appointed United Methodist Student Pastor.
The following eight years, I was an obsessive full-time student, serving three churches (part-time?) and barely lifted my nose from a book except to preach sermons and other pastor-like tasks. Letting anyone know where I was, except the post office, and our immediate family, did not even occur to me. It is not that I never missed home (Onset) or never got home sick (boy did I). I missed my parents, who were gone, I missed the place I loved (Onset) but did not think there were any options for visits.
Years later, we were finally able to plan a vacation home. I was excited, to say the least. We planned a few days at Old Sturbridge Village and the rest of the time at home in Onset. That trip had to be cancelled at the last minute due to a health crisis. By the time my husband was released from the hospital there was precious little vacation time for such a trip. We tried again a few years later, I registered for my Fortieth High School reunion but, once again we had to cancel due to health reasons. During all these years, I really did not have any contact with classmates or my father’s family, so it was all about place, but not people.
After cancelling two trips, I told my husband the next time I wasn’t going to plan, we were just going to go. Spontaneously. Ten years past. As I prepared for retirement in the spring of 2018, a life changing invitation came my way, though I didn’t realize how big an impact it would have. I was invited to do a wedding in Maine, that summer. I readily accepted. Not long after accepting, I realized that the location in Maine was just four hours north of Onset. I was going to do the wedding and I was going home. Because I would be retired at the time of the wedding, I assumed we could take an open ended vacation. However, after the details were set, I accepted an appointment to serve two churches part-time. That changed my open ended vacation to once again, only have 2 days to be in town.
We arrived in Onset on a cold, cloudy, sometimes rainy day. I did not care! I drove around and around, stopping, walking on the beach, taking lots of silly pictures of gulls on the beach, on the Onset pier and pictures of home. When my husband and I talked to a friend after our return she asked about our trip. His response, “Well, let’s see. We saw the house where she grew up, we saw the beach. We saw where her grandmother’s house used to be and the Union Villa, and we walked on the beach. We saw the house where she grew up…” I suppose he was bored. It’s okay; but I could not get enough of drinking in views and memories, sights, scents and sounds. A beach on a cloudy day is better than no beach at all, and clouds and drizzle do not prevent the search and rescue of a few sandy seashells.
I had really thought this trip home would be a once and done. After all, I had no contact with old friends, did not know any of my dad’s family or have contact information for them. This trip was about memory and place, and a slice or two of pizza and at least one seafood dinner. It was a bittersweet trip, because while there were people in town who vaguely remembered the Union Villa when it was a bar, there was no one in town, fifty years later, who could say, “Oh yes, I remember Jack and Maggie.” Bitter. Sweet. But there was this surprising, nudging, nagging thought. Every place we went, every place I set my feet, that thought came as a simple word: “Write!”
And I understood that ‘once and done’ was not going to work. I wanted more; I needed more. So, I began to hope, plan, plot, dream, calculate and wonder if there was a way I could return. I did not expect such a profound pull on my heart, on my whole being to return. I had thought it was all about memory, but I think now it was about something larger. I began to wonder if I had left something behind when I moved away, something more significant than the things one fails to grab and throw into a suitcase before checking out. While I could share simple answers to that soul searching, the truth is that journey continues.
Serendipitously, I found contact information for a high school classmate before leaving town. It turned out that I was two weeks shy of being in town for the Fiftieth Class Reunion. Coming back for the celebration was not an option, but she put me in touch with other classmates and we connected through Facebook. I am grateful for that in more ways than I can say. When I was able to return to Onset for an entire week, to visit, take more pictures of gulls on the beach return again and again to my childhood home, connect with family I didn’t know I had and write, “Write!” I learned some important things. Many other people in the last fifty years have come to rightly claim Onset as their home. Some of them are quite active in supporting their town and helping it be what it is today and they are doing great work. (See http://www.onsetbay.org) I know that in that sense, Onset is only where I am from, it is not where I live. For me, it is home in the past tense. Yet, not.
I know some people who have never wandered far from home, who have at least lived in a discrete small radius from home. This applies to most of my in-laws, except one who left the state for his education and whose work keeps him darting all over the map. But most have stayed close. I know some people who have either bought what they lovingly refer to as the “old homestead,” or who never left it. My brother and I both left early on, both traveled differently but permanently. My children also left the nest behind, each of them in their late teens. My fault, I admit. I raised them on tales of my adventures, leaving home to visit my brother, getting my driver’s license at 19 and getting my first apartment. But I also tried to nurture their dreams and not hold them back with apron strings.
My husband and I have been together longer and lived together longer, than anywhere we have lived in our lives or anyone we have been with, almost thirty-four years. Two years ago, just before my retirement we bought our first home together. Every day I thank God for our home. It is a simple, old house, for a simple old couple and a goofy dog. It too, is home. Thirty four years ago he said to me, “Anywhere I hang my hat is home,” and then later, “Anywhere you are is home.” That is an important, yet humbling reality.
As a pastor, and a pair of parsonage dwellers we lived with a realistic sense that every home was ours to use, part of the benefit package, but not truly ours. Home. But not home, until the Bishop determined otherwise. Three such homes in twenty three years, to hang our hats and be together, not rooted in place, just simply tethered.
Like a turtle that carries its home on its back, so I have carried home with me, in seashells and beach sand, cranberry scoops and Portuguese Pottery. I have carried them from house to house, state to state and some thing more precious than even those. Some thing that does not require bubble wrap, or shipping charges. Some thing that will not fade or crack like an old photograph and some thing that the heart might not be the right combination of delicacy and strength to hold. These are the things I have carried in my soul. And that begs the question: is home where you live, or something much more?
I am just a vintage chick on a journey of discovery, and I am not, NOT holding back the tide.
Michele Marcellino Somerville