Last holiday season, I realized it’d been a couple of years since I last visited my former hometown, the perfect-sized small village located in the middle of Michigan. A college town with a strong football program.
Back when I was a know-it-all eighteen-year-old, I was anxious to shake its small-town dust off my shoes. To see its reflection receding in my rear-view mirror. In my opinion, it was too provincial. Small. Not hip. I left it for an out-of-state college, then marriage and family, and finally a better job.
My Trip Home
My trips back have tapered with decreasing frequency. With Christmas approaching, a dose of nostalgia hit me. So, when I saw a window of opportunity, I grabbed it. It was a spur of a moment decision to see my aging mother.
For several days I visited with my mom, my family, and a few relatives. Nephews who used to be knee-high, busy toddlers are now bubbly second graders. Aging aunts discussed plans to sell large family homesteads for something simpler in town. All throughout the week, loved ones filled me in on the details of their lives.
As I sat and listened, something seemed off. Something I couldn’t quite identify was missing.
And then it occurred to me.
Only a Bystander
I’m only a bystander to their lives, as they are to mine. I’m not mired in the mundaneness of their daily activities. I can’t help with carpooling their kids to school tomorrow, nor will I be there to carry boxes of my aunt’s belongings on moving day. Likewise, my relatives won’t be able to sit beside me at my son’s hospital bed, if his health takes a turn for the worst.
At best, we are only able to peer into each other’s lives as spectators.
The Pain of Passing Time
A bitter-sweet quality pervaded all the nooks and crannies of this visit. I couldn’t help but notice a tinge of hollowness in conversations as if vitality and solidity had gone missing. It was then that I realized grief colored my interactions. An unacknowledged reality that I was only there for a few days with no plans to return saturated every exchange with sadness.
I wanted the time I spent with family to feel different. Why couldn’t we all pretend that I’d never left? To act as if nothing had changed? That our relationships had never experienced interruption?
Everywhere I went, there were reminders that that was no longer true. Changing local landmarks made it necessary to use a GPS for directions. I no longer knew the names of neighbors who now live up and down the street. All around me were undeniable signs that I no longer occupied a spot in this community. I’d become an outsider — a stranger.
Homesick for Home
This feeling brings to mind a word a friend shared with me right after my husband’s death. She said when she came across it, she’d thought of me.
Hiraeth, a Welsh word, means “a homesickness for a home to which I cannot return and maybe never was.”
Tears fell when I read it for the first time. It described an insatiable inner longing I often feel.
Oh, how I wish I could revisit my favorite childhood places, to relive a few sweet moments I had once shared with my deceased husband, or to recapture a bygone afternoon spent rocking one of my infant sons to sleep.
Yes, I’m homesick for a place to which I can never return. It has disappeared into the far recesses of time gone past.
I’ve returned to my new home now. When I arrived at the airport, it was a relief to walk off the plane back into the warm winter air of Texas. To open my tiny studio apartment’s door and to be back among all of my familiar things. To once again see the faces of my grown sons and new local friends.
And as I catch up on what I’d miss during the past week, I feel at peace. This is where I belong. Here my place is secure. This has become my new home.
A Revelation of What it Means to Come Home
Trying to go back home is as useless as trying to find the end of a rainbow. It appears right in front of me but remains out of reach. Pursuing it only leads to heartache and disappointment. If I want to live a full life, I must face, even embrace, the loss of my childhood home.
This present moment is all that’s real. This is where I live now. In a new place, with new friends and my now-adult sons. I know life will continue to bring changes, maybe another move or the death of someone close. Time and again, I’ll have to say goodbye and start over.
Loss is teaching me that home isn’t a plot of land or the familiar four walls of a house. It is much more than that. It’s a certainty — a familiarity. And if I carry it around deep in my heart, then I don’t need to worry about trying to get back to it. I’m already there. I’m home.
Previously published on medium
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