Context

by

Last month I traveled back to the town where I grew up, to attend my high school reunion. Twenty years after leaving home, I still remember setting out on my own, charged with ideas and possibility and the fragile independence of being 18 years old. I thought I was packing light (it all fit inside my grandparents’ car!), but my every step carried the weight of my home, family and history. It’s a good thing I wasn’t flying.

As time unfolds, we evaluate what older generations have taught us and select traditions that match our values and create meaning.

An inventory of what I considered normal at the time: my house and hometown and the innerworkings of my family, dynamics with friends and neighbors, and a set of rituals that were grounding and comforting and upheld without question. I suppose I didn’t realize how integral to my sense of myself were all of those factors. How a specific place and time can carry forward such universal concepts as history, identity and values.

But then again, that must be the perfect vehicle: before we’ve had awareness or intention to construct an identity, we just are who we are and we haven’t developed the skills or experience to present ourselves differently. I was amazed at how well my old classmates knew me, and how well I knew them, even after years without contact. Sharing so many early years has us holding eachothers histories in a very raw form, without editing. These days that transparency is actually an aspiration of mine.

A very simple allegory is that you can’t get away from where you’re from, that you never truly leave anything behind. I’ve thought about this a lot over the years, and it’s inspired very different sentiments, varying in intensity but similar in effect. In a predictable rotation with a sense of humor that’s not lost on me, there’s anger and rejection, to crushing limitation, to overwhelming duty, to familiar comfort and stabilization. But lately I’ve found a new angle: acceptance of the past, and a personal imperative to carry forward a sense of home as I build my own family.

Turns out I’ve been doing this for years without realizing it. This new construction is taking place in small steps, beginning with a major change in geography more than a decade ago. My relocation to Northern California from the suburbs of Chicago, away from home and family, allowed me to start building a life without the familiar physical guideposts. That my now-husband and I did this together is significant: we felt like pioneers, independent and blazing our own trail.

But of course the emotional guideposts were there all along, and it wasn’t until we started a family out here that we stopped ‘going home’ to where we grew up, and started making a home right where we were. Returning for visits to Chicago with our first child, then second and third, began to feel like going away, and coming home to California greeted us with familiar sensations: eucalyptus in the air, rain in the winter, dry baking heat, ranch-style houses built into the landscape, subtle changes in seasons and lots of time barefoot. The children are young and their minds are agile; their conception of home and family are being formed right this minute.

As for me, I’m not sure if I’ll ever get used to the idea of not going upstairs to bed, that fall is for planting not hibernating, that a sunny farmer’s market is a reliable choice for Christmas dinner fixings, and entire winters can pass without snowmen or sledding. That it makes perfect sense to wear flip flops with wool scarves, nearly every day of the year.

I suppose this is how memory works, why sensations trigger certain emotions and memories, and physical rituals can both shape and reveal who we were, are, and are becoming. Rituals bring a sense of familiarity, a grounding, a warmth and significance to a new home, new town, new phase of life. Even in my most tragically uncertain moments, going to my family’s cottage during the summer gave me something to hold on to; the specific way the table was set at my grandparents’ house was intensely familiar and comforting. As time unfolds, we evaluate what older generations have taught us and select traditions that match our values and create meaning. We build our home, but not alone.

My own daily work of building a home continues. I’ve added openness and transparency to the mix, a thread from the present to be woven in with family history, memory, and rituals both inherited and created. My home is past and present together, moving toward a future made of the very fabric we’re creating every day, which imprints itself into my sensory memory: the energy and clamor of early afternoon, the smell of pencil shavings for evening homework, the many shades of green and gold in the hills nearby, the mix of peace and longing during my times alone. The way my heart catches when my husband roasts chicken in rosemary, because he remembers that the smell makes me feel cared for.

My home holds me, with every passion and paradox, the family that raised me and the one I’m raising, the traditions we maintain and the spontaneity that breathes new life into every one of us. It feels revolutionary and new, but when I go back to Chicago for my next reunion, I’ll bring it all with me; we’ll marvel at how quickly time passes, how easily we still recognize each other, and add another thread to our shared history.