The Longest Home

When I was growing up, my family and I were American Bedouins, briefly rooted, then moving on. We were children and I suspect our parents were too, though to us they were gods who determined our fate. In their first fourteen years of marriage they would have ten different homes.

My father was a salesman and his work involved his being “transferred,” as we put it, to a different, usually distant city every two or three years. Hence, though I was born in Detroit, my brother was born a mere three years later in Philadelphia, where our mother had spent her entire life, up to the time she met and married the man who would become the reason her sons would never be able to say where they were “from.” She lived that marital vow, “whither thou goest, I will go.” She had no idea what she’d bargained for.

When she died in her eighties, she left behind some carefully-organized papers in a small metal file cabinet, including a hand-written itinerary of her married life, year by year, place by place, some twenty different homes in all, spanning fifty years and two countries and crisscrossing the continent. Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Birmingham, Philadelphia (again), St. Louis (again), Monterrey, Mexico, Mexico City, Pittsburgh. All these before I was twelve.

In that list I see my brother and me, scrambling to adjust to new schools, new friends (or the lack of them), even new languages, learning that whatever possibilities the future might hold for us, a long-term home wasn’t one of them, and that a house was a structure where you essentially camped out for awhile. I can’t say what psychological strengths or infirmities this experience conferred on us, but I do note that once he assumed control over where he lived, my brother didn’t move again for forty years. I, on the other hand, would follow in my parents’ peripatetic footsteps, staying nowhere very long.

Eventually I would realize that some people had a different conception of home, a place where they’d passed all of their formative years, a repository of all their childhood memories. I had no such place, just photographs of houses briefly lived in, snippets of association, like sets in a play, on rollers, designed to be quickly changed.

There was a hiatus in my teens when we all lived in the same house for a whole six or seven years. Then I went off to college, four years of living in a different room with a different person each year. Then law school in New York City, in a dorm for a year and in a shared apartment for the other two. A young lawyer’s salary allowed the usual litany of rented apartments in New York, including the two-bedroom where I became a husband and a father. And when I moved away to California a few years later, there was a lovely little bachelor bungalow on the grounds of a big mid-century modern home in Portola Valley, down the coast from San Francisco. None of these places was home for more than a year or two.

I was in my late thirties before I owned a house, an overgrown cabin in the woods not far from the bachelor bungalow. This first place I owned would be the one where I’d live longest — eighteen years, a lifetime by my standards. As the years passed I fixed it up, put in a deck and a hot tub as the times required, updated the whole interior, thinking I’d be there indefinitely. Which of course I wouldn’t be.

But that was the longest home, where several relationships and an entire marriage and the beginnings of another transpired, the place where I lived when my mother, after all her own travels, died nearby, just up the road, where I’d arranged for her to move only a couple of years before. She just couldn’t stay anywhere long.

My wife and I have lived in our house in the town where I went to college for almost twelve years now, not as long as the house in the woods, but longer than anywhere else I’ve lived. And it seems longer still, perhaps because so much love and friendship has been shared within its walls. A young family bought the house in the woods when we left it; we’re still in touch. Their children are almost grown now, having lived in that one house, made bigger and better, for most of their lives, year after year, the same giant redwoods looming above, the same stars night after night, the same road to the same school. A good way to grow up, I think, in a place that they may realize, looking back, was their longest home.

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