Before I begin, no, this is not going to be about actually having no roof over one's head. I'm fortunate to have that, and being that there are more than 5 times as many vacant homes in the United States as there are those without homes, it is a problem that we should not have in a civilized country. But we are not civilized, we are capitalists, and that is for another day...
No, I want to write about the more esoteric meaning of "home". About how much of one's identity comes from that understanding of having a place in the world that is yours, and that you are its. It's a feeling that I believe I've always sought, but which has eluded me for most of my life. Somehow, my wife and I got speaking about this tonight, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it, so I'm going to write it all down.
Despite the fact that I was fortunate enough to live in the same hometown and attend the same public school system for 13 years in my youth, "home" was not a single place or sense for me after I was nine years old or so. Right at the end of third grade, we moved across town to a new house, and although it was technically in the same elementary school zone, for some reason my mother decided that it would be better for me to go to a different elementary school for fourth grade. My little sister continued in the old school all the way through, but apparently there was something better, the gifted program perhaps, that it was important for me to be a part of and to separate from all of my friends that I had made over the previous four years. I remember my mother telling me that when all the elementary school students joined back together for fifth grade at the intermediate school, it would be "like I was fluent in two languages" because I would know kids from both schools. The fact is that I ended up feeling illiterate in two languages, because I was the new kid at the one school that I only attended for one year, and I became separated from my old friends for a full year, which caused a rift that never truly healed. I knew kids from both schools, but never really belonged to either.
At this same time, my parents divorced. My new house was affected before it could become my new home. In fact, the central events in the divorce seem to have gone down during a week that I was attending a sleep-away soccer camp, the only time I ever went to sleep-away camp as a kid. I came home, and "home" was dramatically different, in ways I could sense even if I couldn't fully intellectualize them at the time. By the time my parents took me aside to tell me that they were getting divorced a few weeks later, I was not shocked, even though life had changed very little for me over those weeks, except that my dad was away, like on a very long business trip. I knew, even though I didn't know.
So, three major life changes all happening within a few months to a nine year-old. I guess I can add on top of that my mother going to work for the first time in my life, both sets of grandparents moving from their homes that same year (places that had a multigenerational "home" feeling for me), and both of my parents having new relationships and getting remarried within a few years.
With my parents divorced, it meant I was away with my dad every other weekend from that time forward, further separating me from my friends, who had experiences on the weekends I was away that I could not be a part of, and which made me feel less close to them. I always felt like I was missing something when I was away, even if what I was doing was often objectively more fun and interesting than anything I might have missed. It led me to have a deep insecurity about being on the outside, even in my groups of close friends. As I got older, I always made it a point to stay until the end of the party so I would make sure I didn't miss the best part, even though the end of the party was more often than not relatively boring. I chose not to take advantage of opportunities I had to travel abroad, first with my grandfather in high school, and later in college, for fear that I might miss something at home, and those are decisions that I very much regret. I guess, at some level, I feared that if I went away for any period of time, I'd come home and everything would be changed and I wouldn't be able to understand why, or I would become an outsider to my old friends.
Eighth grade was probably the worst. Surely, I'm far from the only person to ever say those words. But my home-life had a few major changes at that time that made "home" more up in the air than ever for me. My dad and step-mother bought a house much closer to where my mother lived. Unlike my dad's old one-bedroom apartment, this was a very large house with many bedrooms for my sister and me, and within a year, a new baby brother. My dad and step-mother truly made every effort to make their new house a home for me and my sister, they really did. But despite having my own room and bed and some furniture and things there, it was never really my "home". It was my dad's family's home, and I had a place there, but I was just a very frequent visitor. I blame no one for this, it's just how I felt. My little brother, and little sister born two years later, grew up in that house, and it was their home all the way through high school. I really envy that, the stability, the permanence, the "home" of it. I loved that house, and it was the home that stayed at most of the time when I was home from college and for the year after I graduated, but by that time, it was just a more comfortable place to be, where I had more personal space, than my mother's house.
At the same time, the summer after eighth grade, my mother got married. My step-father had been living with us for some time before that, which was a change in my "home" in itself, but what really changed was that after they were married, his daughter came to live with us full time, not just as an occasional weekend guest. At that time, she and I could not have been more different, and we did not get along at all. I was very upset at the new arrangement, and I let that be known. What had been a house where I already felt it difficult to find a space of my own, became that much more so. It's not like it was a tiny house, or that we had to share bedrooms or anything like that, but there was just something about the design of that house that made it so that every sound echoed through every room, and there was no peace to be found. My step-sister and I are cool now, but she was not a welcome addition to my home when I was 14.
I tried to spend as much time at sports practices or friends' houses as I could, coming home in time for dinner and bed. My friends never came over to my house. Part of that was because my house was the most distant from everywhere else we'd ever go, but a lot of it was that there was nowhere to be there, nowhere that my sisters weren't, and frankly there was nothing to do there. My rooms in both of my homes were always rather spare and undecorated because all I ever did there was sleep or do homework. I didn't want to spend time there, why would anyone else? When I was allowed to borrow the car later in high school, it only increased my ability to not be at home.
Even after I had a car to use, my weekends with my dad made my high school years somewhat distant from my hometown. I was away many weekends, and even when I had the ability to drive the 20 minutes back to my town, it seemed that so many years of my not being around contributed to my not being included, or invited, for many get togethers. My best friends were always there for me, but I believe that I could have had a wider social circle had I not spent my teen years out of town half of the weekends. I never met or knew a single kid from the town where my dad lived, and even my hometown was not fully home at the time in life when identification with your town and school seem to be the most important.
Now it's 20 years later. My mother and step-father retired to New Mexico in 2004. My father and step-mother retired to California in 2008. My step-sister and her family live not too far from where I grew up, but I don't have any other remaining family in the area. There is no more "home base" where I can stay if I ever travel back. For this reason, between my step-sister's wedding in 2007 and my cousin's wedding in 2011, I never even set foot in the state. I still have friends there, and many more friends who still have family there, whom I'd see at holidays and such, but I don't ever see them anymore, because even my hometown is no longer "home" in any way.
And me? I keep moving...
To be continued in Part II "Never Going Back To My Old School".