Coping: Homesick for a place that no longer exists

It feels bizarre to belong nowhere after having taken a sense of home for granted for such a long time

Bricks and memories: a line drawing of Laura Kennedy’s old family home by her brother, Damien, who is an architect

Bricks and memories: a line drawing of Laura Kennedy’s old family home by her brother, Damien, who is an architect

 

Since my mother died last November, I have avoided going home to Limerick – where she lived and I grew up – as much as possible. It’s nothing against Limerick, but all of my association with the place involves my mother, and to go back there is to experience her absence in its most painful authenticity.

For the last decade, I have visited Limerick very frequently; always to “go home”. But home doesn’t exist any more. A young couple now live in our old house, starting their life together inside the four walls that were our centre of life for such a long time. The idea of passing that house – and my mother not being inside pottering about the kitchen and being happy to see my brother and me walk in the door – is pretty unbearable.

Unsurprisingly given the sense of displacement that comes when you are without parents (even as an adult), the concept of home has been on my mind a lot. I’m not the only one. When I called my brother the other night to catch up, he sounded glum, and had been thinking about the same thing. He’s one of thousands of hard-working young people who were cut adrift from this country when the economy imploded, and had to go to London in order to work as an architect after years of study.

Surrounded by family

He got married a couple of months ago, and he and his new wife (also an architect; it’s an incestuous profession) had always intended to go back to Limerick when there was work for architects again. They wanted to make a life at home in Ireland, surrounded by family.

But we don’t have much family any more, apart from one another and one lovely aunt and uncle. My brother sounded desolate, wondering as I had been what makes a place home. Our mother is gone. Without realising it, we had both built our definition of home around her presence, and now we both feel somewhat at sea.

What does make a home? Obviously, it is some sort of positive link to a place. A person, a house, a job. Habit might have something to do with it. A sense of safety. It is interesting, though, how bizarre it feels to belong nowhere after having taken that sense of home for granted for such a long time. If something went wrong or when life in a bigger, colder place became a bit much, you could always go home for a weekend. You could realign yourself, and return to the fray with the sense that there was more to life than whatever nonsense was stressing you out.

After a pause and a sigh, my brother said something that made me hurt for him: “London is good, but we hadn’t ever intended to stay here forever. I suppose we could go anywhere, and some people might find that exciting. But I can’t think of a single reason to choose any particular place. Maybe a good job offer or a sunny climate helps people decide, but without people, what makes a place home?”

I couldn’t answer his question, but I thought about Immanuel Kant. One of the most famous and ingenious philosophers ever, Kant also seemed like a bit of a pain in the bum. I admire him for actually trying to live according to the moral ideals he set, but unfortunately he also applied them to others, making him rather rigid and unrelenting. He lived for the entirety of his life in Prussian Königsberg (now the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad) and only ever strayed a few miles outside the city.

He rose every day at five, and stuck to a rigid routine that didn’t change throughout his life. He saw no reason to leave Königsberg.

It reminded me that travel doesn’t come particularly naturally to contented people. Being displaced and forced to move features heavily in the history of our species, but for the most part, we like the consistency of home. Travel is a wonderful luxury that comes with money and political stability. Sometimes it’s motivated by the desire to experience other places, and sometimes it’s a corollary of displacement – whatever form it might take, we almost always want to settle in a home eventually.

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