When my brother and I were home for Easter, my mom welcomed us with bowls of Raisin Bran and big mugs of decaffeinated tea, long hugs that started with her telling us how good it was to have us home, even just for 24 hours, and that ended with a kiss on the cheek. She let my brother fall asleep in the recliner and let me take the last granola bar in the pantry. She bent the old rules and put our dishes in the dishwasher for us when we, so used to dining halls and drive-thrus, forgot. But she had one firm request of us before we headed back to Oxford: Stop by the house.
To contextualize: We still call it “the house,” but we don’t live there anymore. My mom and stepdad recently completed a downsizing move from the house where I grew up to a condo-apartment thing close to I-675. Within the past month, the house found a buyer: a military couple relocating from Virginia in early June.
My brother, Lee, felt like we wouldn’t have time to make that visit on Easter Sunday — he had to pick up a friend from the airport later that afternoon and wanted to get on the road as soon as possible. He and my mom kept hedging toward an unsatisfying compromise — that we’d skip it that day, but he would squeeze in a trip home some day this summer before the new owners moved in.
“Today’s the last chance you’ll have to see the house with furniture in it,” my mom finally said. The sale wouldn’t close for another month or so, but this would be our last chance to say goodbye when it was still recognizable as home.
So, with 30 minutes to spare before we absolutely had to be on the road so as to not be late to our evening social and extracurricular commitments, we drove over to Blackbirch Drive, kicked our shoes off in the garage and stepped inside.
I’ve been home more often than Lee this semester, so it wasn’t my first time seeing the house in full-on sale mode: countertops clutterless and gleaming, our senior pictures gone from the dining room wall, crystal-clear window panes and a vase of nearly-fresh flowers in every other room.
But then I went upstairs to my room. I hadn’t seen a floor that bare, a carpet that clean since we had been the ones on the buying end, flying from Kansas to Ohio over spring break of my fourth grade year to house hunt. The realtor brought choose-your-own-adventure books in a reusable grocery bag for me and my brother to leaf through in the car when we got bored of the grown-up talk of square footage and school districts, numbed to the distinguishing features of any particular house after seeing a dozen every afternoon.
I can picture one house I sort of liked from that week of searching — a tri-level with red siding and a steep driveway on a tree-lined street. In the backyard, a maze of terraced decks surrounded a kidney-shaped swimming pool. Once we’d stepped inside and learned that the last owners were smokers, we didn’t come back for a second look.
“They say you can do it, but it’s really impossible to get that smell out of the walls,” my mom said. I nodded silently and wrote it down in the notebook I was carrying, a little investigative journalism student in the School of Moving Away.
I don’t even remember ever visiting the house that we eventually settled on: the one on Blackbirch Drive, the house with two staircases, one by the front door and one leading up from the living room in the back.
“Safer in case of a fire,” my mom said soberly. “We’ll get you kids one of those rope ladders you could hang out your window.” But when I heard there’d be two staircases, I could only imagine double the twinkle-lit garlands across banisters for Christmas, double the white wooden spindles to peek my face through, double the carpeted terrain to scramble up on all fours just for the hell of it.
That was all in 2007. Now, after two years of gradual decluttering and months of intensive sprucing up, the house looked beautiful, fringing on perfect: way, way more so than our life had ever been when we’d lived there. This was the house that the three of us — my mom, my brother and me — moved into after my dad died. For every happy or fun or special memory I could think of in a room, I felt ones of grief, too, and ones of bittersweet rebuilding. I cried as I said goodbye to my bedroom, the screened-in porch, the music room where our baby grand piano still regally sat. I cried three more times in the car before we even reached the highway.
When I moved out of my dorm room in Tappan at the end of last year, I didn’t feel sad. I’d hardly spent any time there, except to sleep at what could be loosely defined as “night” and do my makeup in the mornings. My side of the room had only been truly clean on move-in day and had gotten more and more overstuffed with t-shirts and papers as the year had rolled on. I adored my roommate, but among my mess, I could never relax enough to think of it as home. Moving out was merely a relocation of all my stuff. I wasn’t losing anything.
This past year in Stoddard has been different — I actually spent time in my room while I was awake. I’m still often cluttered, but I didn’t cram my drawers and closet and desk with quite so much stuff — there was room left for me to actually live. I put postcards from a summer visit to New York and train tickets from my study abroad in Italy on the wall. My roommate and I have maintained a two-week supply of emergency chocolate in a basket atop the microwave. The floor looks like wood, and we have three windows. I’ll miss this room in two weeks when I move out.
And I’m still an underclassmen: So far at Miami, I’ve only known on-campus living, where ownership is spread thin among dozens to hundreds of residents in a hall. I can’t imagine what it’ll feel like to have an entire apartment in which to plant my roots, a kitchen and bathroom and front door and laundry machine to call my own. It’s a good thing the apartment I’m living in next year doesn’t have much of a yard; if it did, I’d probably be overwhelmed with the pure domesticity of it all and stick a hand-painted flag in the ground like an astronaut and declare that, as one large step for Emma-kind, I’d never leave.
But that wouldn’t work, even if it might feel triumphant over these inevitably changing addresses at the time. For the year after next, I’ll be moving to somewhere else in Oxford. And another move to somewhere else in Oxford the following year. And finally, finally, when I finish my degrees, I’ll move somewhere else entirely, maybe Chicago or New York or Atlanta or somewhere in western Europe.
Young adulthood is nomadic. New roommates are found and new leases are signed. Google Chrome will have to keep re-learning new shipping and billing addresses to autofill. I can’t make any promises for rooms with three windows, houses with two staircases or one lovely screened-in porch.
But home is what, and where, we make it. Hopefully, we will always a roof and walls around us. If we at least have some semblance of a floor, we will always have somewhere to lay when we get overwhelmed by the world.
And though our roommates might get concerned, we sometimes need to just lay on the floor for a while. Or tape up more bizarre ephemera on the walls. Or fill the fridge door with post-it notes of funny stuff that gets said. Or keep the windows open until December.
Or whatever else makes it feel like ours.