When I came back to the US after twenty years absence, it was like being a child let loose in Disneyland. But it didn't feel like home. Twenty years is a long time.
Why did the house where my family lived no longer seem like home? I began to wonder about what we mean by home, I mean really home, that place where you exhale, relax, know where everything is, know what every change in light and each shift in the air currents means.
And so I began to collect accounts of home from all kinds of books and photographs. On the shelf above my computer is a fat notebook with wonderful narratives -- all of them are other people's accounts of Der Heim Platz -- Home.
Thinking I might write something that tied them all together, I began to take notes. Here a few paragraphs:
The smell of burning apple wood has the power to stop me in my tracks. That gamy, sweet smoke will interrupt any thought and, for a moment at least, obliterate all other senses. Attentive at the threshold of memory, I am home.
To a friend I might explain, "I love that smell," but that isn't quite true, for in the deep, sub-rational place where the precise memory of burning firewood lives, love and like are as irrelevant as they must be to the sea turtle finding its way back to the remote beach where it hatched. In the grip of memory all I know is, that place was mine. Or better, that place was me.
Over the years I've tried to give that memory some substance, bring it into focus. I've formed an image of a farmhouse kitchen with blue-grey walls and an uneven pine board floor, a big table in the middle, and a blackboard on one wall. For a long time I was sure I must have invented this place because I grew up in a huge brick house very close to a city. The kitchen was massive and staffed by a cook and maids and it had no rural flavor whatsoever. Try as I might I couldn't link apple wood smoke to any part of that efficient, busy place.
Apple wood was cut and burned in the fireplaces of my grandmother's big Maine summer house I'm sure -- the house sat on a hill overlooking a harbor and it was surrounded by an old apple orchard. But her functional, well-staffed kitchen bore no resemblance to that other kitchen with its idiosyncratic blackboard.
During a rootless period when I moved through a series of rented apartments and houses I heard something which made me decide to look harder for the source of the blue-grey kitchen memory -- or perhaps prove that it was wholly invented. On the car radio one evening I heard The Wind in the Willows being read aloud:
He stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current, that had so strongly move him. A moment, and he had caught it again, and with it this time came recollection in its fullest flood.
Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way! Why, it must be quite close by him at the moment, his old home that he had hurriedly forsaken and never sought again, that day when he first found the river!
And now it was sending out its scouts and its messengers to capture and bring him in. Since his escape on that bright morning he had hardly given it a thought, so absorbed had he been in his new life, in all its pleasure, its surprises, its fresh and captivating experiences.
Now, with a rush of old memories, how clearly it stood up before him in the darkness! Shabby indeed, and small and poorly furnished, and yet his, the home he had made for himself, the home he had been so happy to get back to after his day’s work. And the home had been happy with him, too, evidently, and was missing him, and wanted him back, and was telling him so, through his nose, sorrowfully, reproachfully, but with no bitterness or anger; only with plaintive reminder that it was there, and wanted him.