I visited New York this weekend, for a short but multi-purpose trip back to my ancestral homeland. As many of you know, I spent the first 17 years of my life on Long Island, in a bustling yet somewhat brutal suburb of the great City itself.
New Yorkers are generally very proud of where they live, and remain proud of where they come from if they happen to move away. They retain their stereotypical attitude (which is, if anything, underplayed in the media) and their propensity for tailgating on the highway.
They can never eat a bagel or slice of pizza without loudly proclaiming its inferiority to the cuisine of their youth (it’s the water, don’t you know), and they will forever be shocked that businesses, restaurants, and public transportation options close before midnight in towns that approach life at a slower pace.
While I’m certainly guilty of maintaining some of these traits, despite my eight years as a Massachusetts resident, I’ve never been as enamored with New York as many of my compatriots. It’s a fascinating place, and there is something to be said for growing up in such a cosmopolitan atmosphere, with world-class museums and attractions and beaches being such a routine part of my childhood.
There’s something to be said for leaving it behind, too. I was never a very good New Yorker. I didn’t really like the city; I didn’t care for our sports teams, or take pride in being mouthy and brash. I didn’t frequent the salons and the tanning parlors, or the bars and the clubs. I don’t like stucco on houses. I don’t flat-iron my hair and I’ve never been to the Jersey Shore. I don’t wear yoga pants or velour sweat suits, and I prefer not to have rhinestone logos associated with my rear end.
As a teenager, I felt this disconnect very strongly, and I fled to Massachusetts almost as soon as I had the choice. As a college student, I fell in love with its expansive woodlands and winding roads and 18th century villages. I don’t mind that everything closes at 8:00 at night, because I like to be in bed just an hour or so later. I like the quiet, and the comparative friendliness (yes, even in Boston proper), and the progressively liberal bent to our politics.
I chose to live in Massachusetts, to settle here and make a life for myself. It has become home, but no matter how many years I end up living here, I don’t know that it will ever be where I’m from.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that distinction, because my family is facing a big change in the coming months. We are selling the house I grew up in.
That might not seem like a momentous thing for people who have moved around a lot during their lives, but it’s the only house I have ever lived in. It was the place I ran to when I was feeling overwhelmed by people I didn’t understand; it’s where I could shut myself away with a book and a cat (or two or three) and pretend like I was in control of my world. Its old-fashioned character shaped my aesthetic senses with rich cherry wood moldings and glass knobs on the rickety doors.
In contrast to the open floor plans and master suites of my friends’ houses, our 1923 American four-square organized its living spaces in smaller, more dedicated ways. Having only one full bathroom for three kids and two parents required everyone to invest in some serious negotiating tactics in the mornings. The bedrooms are small and the kitchen never had enough counter space, but high ceilings made everything feel bigger. There’s a basement my dad finished himself. A screened-in back room gave us a little more space to spread out, and let us spend leisurely summer dinners as a family overlooking a grassy yard large enough to be the envy of our carefully subdivided neighbors.
I spent a lot of time in the house as a child – I was homeschooled for several years, and even when I returned to public school, I did not waste a lot of my scarce energy on after-school activities or late evenings with friends. I just went home.
I went home to my books, which never made me feel anxious or out of place. I went home to my cats, who would listen to my secrets without judgement or comment. I went home to the internet, and the ability to interact with the world from the safety of my own private castle. When my parents divorced, I went home to the only place that seemed solid in a foreign and confusing new reality.
I went home and cried myself into exhaustion after I failed my first driver’s test, too embarrassed to tell any of my friends. I went home while putting college on hold after a truly heinous semester at Boston University, and stared at the ceiling all night as I lay sleepless in my familiar bed, convinced I had ruined my life.
I stayed home when I was too sick or just too tired to go to high school; I came home almost every weekend for months as my cat Solomon started to come to the end of his days, just to spend as much time with him as I could.
Home has always been there for me, and home has always been that house. I know that makes me lucky. That sense of permanence has been a gift that kept me going through a tumultuous youth that left me feeling isolated, frustrated, and poorly understood more often than not.
When I visit these days, I feel those negative memories first. I feel the pain of my slowly splintering family, and the resonating anger of so many heated disagreements over our fundamental differences. I feel like a lost child again, rooting around helplessly in my overwhelming sadness, searching for some sense of self I could hardly define, let alone capture.
I feel all the missteps I made when I didn’t know better, and all the mistakes that other people didn’t even know they were making with me. I feel the heartbreak of wishing so hard that things could be different, and the defeat of recognizing how many things are still the same, no matter how much older I get.
It’s in my nature, perhaps, to think about the bad things first, but they certainly don’t reflect the sum total of my life there. There are so many good memories that made that house the sanctuary it will always remain in my mind.
There were sunlit mornings in the kitchen, eating breakfast while my mother washed the dishes, and winter afternoons charting new trails through the unbroken snow of the backyard grass. There was my dogwood tree to climb, and a pool for a while, and the chaise in the screen room where I would fall asleep in the dappled shade.
There was the grill on the deck for steaks and chicken, and the terror of discovering a hornet’s nest under the eaves. There was the ill-fated garden behind the garage, where we planted sickly tomatoes next to the sandy pit where I pretended to be an archaeologist.
There was the crawl space in the basement, where the original builders had left mysterious bottles and jugs, and the swing set, and the basketball hoop that was too tall for me, and the wooden playhouse that had more spiders than I quite liked.
There was chocolate milk on Sunday, and visits from my grandmother, and running to the corner to meet my dad when he came home on the train. There were bike rides up and down the driveway along chalk-drawn streets, and camping in a pop-up tent we never really put together properly.
There were bedtime stories and silly dances and the day my mom spilled half her yogurt down the sink. The ritual recital of Passover seders; the smells of Thanksgiving and latkes and snuffed out Hanukkah candles so the cats wouldn’t burn their whiskers.
Every corner has a story for me. Every creak of the stairs is as familiar as my own name. So much of my life has happened there, and even though I know it’s time to let that house become home for some other family with their future ahead of them, my heart aches when I think about never being in those rooms again.
We still have a month or two before we have to be out of there completely, and we’ve all planned to come down again for another weekend – the last time we will all be in the house together. The finality of that is frightening. So is the inevitability. The sense of detachment may, in time, become liberating, but right now it just feels like I’m losing something very important to the way I have always seen myself.
Change is good, and this change is necessary on many levels, but it is hard to leave behind so much of myself in a place that is so strongly ingrained in my consciousness.
I don’t know how this is going to affect my family and the independent lives we are now living. I don’t know where we’ll have our Thanksgivings and Passovers – or if those will be a thing of the past, as well. I don’t know how the world will feel without a home like that to go back to.
I’m hoping that finally making the break from an idea that has slowly been fading over time anyway will just help me feel more settled and comfortable in the life I’ve built for myself. I hope to have my own permanent house someday, with a yard and brick steps and dogwood trees for my theoretical children to climb.
I don’t know if I will ever feel as secure as I used to when I was a child in my fortress of books and bedding, before I became old enough and jaded enough to think about the bad things first. But I hope I can build upon my treasured memories of happy times, and let the other ones drift away.
Home may be behind, but the world is ahead, and that will have to be the thought that sustains me as I watch one long chapter of my life come to a close and another begins.