“But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home, why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter, and if this little town, and the immortal hills around it, was not the only home he had on earth? He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like water…..”
― Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again
I haven’t lived in Iowa for over 20 years, but I have always considered it home. My family roots run deep there, laid down by Scottish farmers and sunk deep into the dark fertile soil through the decades by their ancestors in a small town called Adelphi, which is no longer a town but a smattering of houses. My father still owns the 80 acres of land where my Scottish ancestors first settled in 1864.
I now live in Chicago, but when I visit my family in Iowa, I cross the Mississippi River from Illinois into Iowa on Interstate 80 and I sigh and drink in the scenery along the stretch of highway that takes me toward Des Moines. The neatly trimmed ditches and the red-tailed hawks sitting on the fence posts next to the road, the deep green corn fields, the silky white clouds against the blue sky – these details wrap around me like my mother’s arms, and I remember all of the hundreds of times I’ve made this trip, the rhythmic thumping of the tires hitting the seams in the highway ticking off the miles until I reached home.
There is one stretch of rural highway within a half-mile of the “old home place” where you will find a row of houses set a few acres apart each. These houses hold my childhood memories. On one corner is the house where my great aunt and uncle lived – my grandfather’s brother – one of the five “Beattie Boys,” who were hardscrabble Scottish farmers and at one time owned and farmed much of the land in the area.
Then up the hill is the brick bungalow where my grandfather, the second to youngest of the Beattie Boys, lived when I was growing up – a widower after my grandmother died of cancer a few months before I was born. When I was young he often sat in a rusted out metal lawn chair in front of his house, smoking a cigarette, and looking out over the valley below.
Next to that house is a white four-square farmhouse where I lived until I was 12. My grandfather was born in this house, and later the family used it as a bunkhouse for the farmhands. Then, when my parents married, my grandparents gave it to them and it was turned from a bunkhouse into our family home.
At 12, my parents built a new house next to that one – where I brooded through my teenage years. Later, after I had grown and moved to Chicago, my parents built another house down the road a half-mile or so. Their retirement home, and a place where they wanted us to bring their grandchildren for visits. It’s in that house where my mother died at age 63.
After that, my dad moved into town.
All of these houses have now been sold and no longer remain in the family. One day the final 80 acres where my ancestors settled will probably be sold as well.
I drove down this strip of road a few weeks ago when I was visiting my father. D was asleep in her car seat in the back. I meandered through the country roads as I waited for her to wake up.
I could barely see the old white farmhouse behind the trees that had grown to full maturity since I lived there. That house used to sit up on the hill unobstructed by trees, leaving a clear view across the Des Moines River valley that stretches for miles. I always felt it was a proud looking house, perched on a hill, like a queen on her throne.
But now the huge thick oak trees obscure the view. I could only catch glimpses of the farmhouse, and my grandfather’s house, and the newer house my folks built. I actually drove by a few times, hoping to get a better glimpse of my past. I was hoping no one would notice and think something suspicious was going on.
I was looking for something. Security? Memories? Comfort?
I’ve often dreamed of going back there to live. To buy back either the white farmhouse or my grandfather’s bungalow – which has an awesome slant-ceilinged attic that would make a perfect writing studio.
But this time I went back to visit, the trees obscuring the view were like a fortress that was growing around these memories to shut me out – telling me that too much time has passed. “Move on, there’s nothing to see here,” the trees said.
David and I talk about moving back to Iowa. We always talk.
“Do you think we could live here?” I ask him.
“You’d get bored,” he replies.
“No, I think it would be an easier life.”
“Maybe. But we’d miss our friends. And Lake Michigan.”
“But we’d be closer to family.”
I don’t know if it will ever happen. I long for peace, and quiet, and simplicity, and the community I remember from childhood. But even if I moved home now, it wouldn’t be the same. I’m not sure if I would find what I’m looking for.
Home isn’t as much a place, I think, as a period of time. Memories. Scenes in my head that only exist as that. A time before we all moved away. A time before my mother died, when all of my siblings and cousins and aunts and uncles lived within one square mile. When neighbors or relatives showed up at our house, open the front door without knocking, and yelled, “Anybody home?” When we’d sit around the table and talk and laugh and eat pie. When my dad would take us for a drive down the road on hot evenings to visit his cousin and get a bottle of pop. When we’d play with our myriad of cousins on the big front lawn and have picnics on blankets and watch fireworks in the park on the Fourth of July.
We are the first generation to leave that land, to become unmoored from that place and family and community, and a part of me feels like we are betrayers. Or pioneers. I’m not sure which.
Shortly after D came to us, when she was two and a half, she was eating pasta the table when out of the blue, she put down her fork, looked me straight in the eyes, and said, “Where is my home?’
I looked at her, and then pointed to her bedroom and her bed with all of her toys, and said, “Your home is here. You are home.”
“Oh,” she said simple, and went back to eating. For months I could tell that she was trying to compute it all in her head – who were her parents? Where did she belong? Why did she have to leave her last home?”
After that, every chance I got I told her that she was home. That she belonged with us. That we were her family.
But even as I reassured her, I was wondering the same thing. Where is my home?
We live in a small condo on the north side of Chicago. We have lived in our current condo for 8 years – a speck of time compared to the 150 years my family lived on the same land in Iowa. When I first moved to Chicago, I never thought I would stay. I thought I would eventually go back to Iowa. But I have lived here for 20 years. In that amount of time, roots are bound to grow, even if it’s through the cracks in the concrete city sidewalks.
As David and D and I drive back to Chicago after a long weekend in Iowa, we hear the thumping of the tires on the seams in the road that tick off the miles until we get back to the city. And with each passing mile the thoughts of moving back to my childhood home grow dimmer.
Maybe the trees in front of my childhood home weren’t saying “Move on, there nothing to see here.” Maybe they were really saying, “Move on. You have grown beyond this place. It’s up to you to build a new home. Put down roots elsewhere, and you will thrive.”
I think of this as I take D to the beach, and to the farmer’s market, and drive the city streets and put her to bed at night. We are sinking into it. Into this place, but also into these memories and community and our combined histories. Where is our home? It is here. Right now. With each other.