This begins with a photo. I took this in June, while I was in Guatemala working on my Abuelos project.
Two young boys, probably brothers, were standing by the shore of Lago Atitlan on the stones where their mothers do laundry. The older appeared to be explaining something to his younger sibling. It occurred to me that there was a very good chance that both of them would live out their entire lives in this location. That made me wonder what their lives would be like in the years to come as their home changed. That in turn got me thinking about home. Not my home, specifically, but the idea of home.
For these boys, home is simple. It is the house where they live with their parents, their grandparents, and maybe even great grandparents. It is full of stories that took place in, and myths that originate from, the town they live in on the shores of the lake they swim in.
It is also complicated, because this is a tourist town, and an ex-pat haven, full of extranjeros bringing strange customs and alien languages, as well as money, lots of money. It is full of restaurants, mostly owned by foreigners, where other foreigners pay more for a meal than these boys’ father makes for a day’s work.
Chances are, their lives are heavily influenced by religion, either the Catholicism forced on their ancestors by Spaniards at swordpoint, or the Evangelical Christianity brought by missionaries from the United States. Neither is a part of their ancestral culture, but both dominate their daily lives today. Most schools are religion based and teach English using the Bible.
This is their home; geographically small, but peopled by a transient global population, and dominated by Western religion. Their culture has been diluted, but their roots are deep and robust. Their families have lived here or nearby for centuries. The ancient stories of and rituals built around the volcanoes and the lake persist in spite of and in contrast to the myths of a Middle Eastern savior. Harvest rituals are followed, traditional foods haven’t changed in generations. Inside many of the Catholic churches are Mayan altars for traditional ceremonies, juxtaposed against the saints who can be similarly petitioned for a good harvest or a fertile marriage or a speedy recovery for a sick loved one.
Contrast that with my personal experience of home. I was born in a little town in the cattle country of eastern Montana. It had a population of just under 1000 at the time. Now it is home to 350, as it takes more acreage to raise a steer and thus more acres to support a family. This is the house my mother brought me home to, and where I lived the first two years of my life.
I remember nothing about this house. I’m sure that the roof, siding, and windows are all new since I lived there. I remember very little about the town, although I did drive through when I was 16 and on a road trip with my family. I remember that I shook the hand of the doctor who delivered me. This is my birthplace, but not home. It made no mark on me, nor I on it.
Two years later we moved 200 miles north to a slightly larger wheat farming town, where my sister was born three months before my third birthday. We lived in this house:
My earliest memories are from this place. I remember my dad mowing the lawn out back, often in concentric rectangles, starting from the middle and spiralling out. I remember playing in the piles of snow that resulted from shoveling huge amounts of snow off the walk. They were big enough to tunnel into and make caves (for a small child). I remember walking to school in bitterly cold weather (-40F). I remember hearing my first pop music coming out of a window down the street. It was “she loves you yeah, yeah, yeah” from the Beatles. I had friends there, but I don’t remember any of them. I visited two of them on this trip. We shared no memories. Does this qualify as “home” because my earliest memories are there? It doesn’t feel like home.
When I was five, we moved to Scotland for a year. My dad, a Congregational minister, exchanged parishes with a minister from a small blue collar town outside of Glasgow. I have a few memories from that year. Notably, I learned to add, subtract, multiply, and divide in the superior British school system. I also remember playing in the coal pile at school, and splashing in puddles on my way home. Kennedy was shot that year. That was the first time I ever saw my mother cry. At one point I had to wear a kilt for a formal family portrait. I was not amused. Scotland felt like home when I was there, I’m sure. I had spent 20% of my life to that date there.
We went back to Montana for a year and then, when I was 7, we moved to suburban New Jersey and I got glasses.
New Jersey, I suppose, is where I did most of my growing up. I attended school there from second grade through eighth grade. Being the new kid in town, from the rural plains, and having glasses, I had a rough time. Without going into details, suffice to say that I have no lasting friendships from grade school or junior high, and also none from high school. I went away to a small boarding school in Vermont, where I rubbed shoulders with both the children of some famous people, and with the children of local farmers. I am only one degree of separation from Kevin Bacon because of this school. After three years, I was kicked out for smoking pot and graduated from high school back in New Jersey. Unlike the two boys in the picture I began this post with, there is nobody outside of family whom I have known my whole life. My oldest friends do come from New Jersey, though. After a one year stint at the University of Vermont, I returned “home” , got a job, and made friends with a bunch of people younger than I. Most of these friendships have endured across the country and across the years. Some have strained past the breaking point for various reasons, but when I visited several of them on this last trip, the superficial glimpse that is Facebook contact exploded into full sensory immersion. All the old feelings of camaraderie and love returned in a rush. It was brief, but powerful. Maybe “home”. I have had precious few friendships as deep as these in my life. I treasure them, and the memories they bring.
I went to art school and lived in Brooklyn for three years and then moved from New Jersey to Arizona. Soon after, my parents also moved, to Massachusetts, and then to Maine, so whenever I flew “home” for the holidays, I wasn’t actually going “home”, I was going to where my parents lived. I went back to New Jersey once for a wedding, and two friends came to visit me in Arizona (incidentally they are the two I am now estranged from). One friend was in school out here, so we were in constant contact for a couple years. Then she left and got married too. I pretty much lost touch until Facebook came along and extended those ephemeral tendrils of communication into our lives. She now has two adult children, older than we were when we met. Facebook got data on all of us and we got photos of our old friends’ kids, pets, and meals. The illusion of connection.
Connection, after all, is what it is all about. Connection is what Facebook sells us in return for the right to sell our data to advertisers. Connection is what cements and prolongs friendship. Connection to a place is what makes it home.
A few miles north of the town where I was born is a place called Medicine Rocks. It is a unique collection of sandstone formations, sculpted over millennia by the wind alone.
The rocks in this remote area are covered with the names and messages of people inscribed there over generations, laying claim to this place and immortalizing their connection to it. This is my home, they say. I lived here, played here, fell in love here.
The need to make one’s mark on the place that has formed you is universal, from cave paintings to modern tagging, people have always peed on the fire hydrant, so to speak, saying “I was here, this place is mine” or “This place may be yours, but I was here.” Often graffiti is a thumb of the nose at tourists. All across Latin America I see tags on Historic buildings, even churches. They say “this is my heritage, not your photo op.”
Sometimes it becomes a photo op anyway, but that is another story.
I suppose Tucson is the closest thing I have to a geographic home at this point. I have spent more of my life here than at any other place. I have friends here, roots, if you will. Even that has been transient, however. I have moved away twice, and was married once, losing touch with friends and community each time.
What the two boys in the photograph will have that I have not is continuity of home built on the stability and familiarity of lifetime relationships. I wouldn’t give up the diverse experiences of my youth or adulthood, but I often long for those deep and enduring connections with people and place that have elude me, or that I have eluded by always being in motion.
Nice autobiographical reminiscences. I often daydream of writing down my myriad memories in a similar fashion but for the most part have avoided the temptation. For a time there you and I shared a number of experiences in Brooklyn. I remember those times with fondness. I remember travelling with you to Montclair for a big party, climbing a cliff in the darkness, wandering through a graveyard and losing a sketchbook. Camping outside of Woodstock, hitchhiking. Having parties in 266. Mutual friends, Ernesto, Scott, Steve L., Joe K., Hallie Mae, Dan P., the lot of them. Working together at Sid’s Hardware for Avi and Heime. Ah, those were the days my friend. We thought they’d never end.
I loved those times. Festoonery in Woodstock! Avi bought a couple of my early paintings. I wonder if he still has them.
This is a fantastic post, Dave. I’ve had the same experience of not living in the same place long enough to feel like it’s my home with roots. The house I’m in right now is the one I’ve lived the longest in. 14 years out of 59.
Thanks! I’ve been thinking about this for three months, and working on it for almost a month. It was hard to write!
I agree. Well written. Thank you for sharing.
Such a powerful piece of writing…thank for sharing such person and sometimes painful experiences.