Jennifer O’Connell: ‘I’ve moved back into my childhood home’

For a nation of leavers, home can be complex, slippery notion

Homing instinct: our friends’ container had finally arrived, with all their furniture. And in that moment the certainty that they had made a dreadful mistake dropped like a stone. Photograph: Yuri Arcurs/E+/Getty

Homing instinct: our friends’ container had finally arrived, with all their furniture. And in that moment the certainty that they had made a dreadful mistake dropped like a stone. Photograph: Yuri Arcurs/E+/Getty

 

My friend has that look on her face again lately. It’s the look anyone who has bought a one-way plane ticket gets from time to time. When you see it – it’s a perplexed, pensive sort of look – you know not to ask. It means she’s thinking about home again. I know that look because I used to wear it, too.

For some of us the notion of home is straightforward, as solid and unshakeable as a roof and four walls. Home is the stair that creaks when you land heavily on it late at night, the door that refuses to close properly, the stories in every room. It’s your town, your county, your history, your people.

But we are a nation of leavers, and, for others, home is a more complex, slippery notion. It’s an idea rather than a place, a restless thrum, a voice whispering that, even though you’re here, part of you is still there.

She couldn’t bear the thought of her things in this place. She said, tell them to turn the container around and send it back. She was ready to go home, really home

My friend recently went back for a holiday to the place she used to call home. Before she left she was certain what home means to her now. She had put down roots, made a declaration, chosen a side. Now she’s not so sure. It’s hard, she says. When I’m here it feels like home. But when I was there it felt like home too. How do you know?

I tell her about a couple I met a few years ago at a party in Sydney. For years they tossed around whether to stay home or go home. Should they commit to Australia, where they had jobs and friends and a nice life of Sunday-afternoon barbecues? But they had always planned to go home to Scotland one day. Everyone wants to go home in the end, don’t they, she said, and I agreed, even though I thought she might be wrong. I thought then I might never go home, I might never leave this place of warm breezes and possums skating across the roof and friendly, easy strangers.

Anyway, they eventually packed up and travelled back across the globe. One day, a couple of months later, she was sitting at the kitchen table in their new rented house in their old city, feeding her youngest daughter scrambled eggs, when her husband came in smiling. Their container had finally arrived in the port, with all of their own furniture, he announced. They were home at last.

And in that moment the certainty that they had made a dreadful mistake dropped like a stone inside her. She couldn’t bear the thought of her things in this place. She said, tell them not to unload it. Tell them to turn the container around and send it back. She was ready to go home, really home, and she finally knew what that meant.

It was an expensive way to find out, her husband shouted from the other side of the back garden in Sydney. But he didn’t sound like he really minded.

When I recounted this story my friend looked like she might cry.

When I was 16 I couldn’t have imagined anything stranger or more outlandish than the notion that I would one day buy the house I grew up in

I understand what it is to wrestle with notions of home. When I was in Australia I would wonder what it would mean to stay. And then I’d think about family and frosty mornings and crumbling ancient walls and the aching beauty of the mountains, and I’d wonder what it would be like to go home.

Then we moved to the United States, and I’d wonder whether home might one day turn out to be this place of broad highways, everything on demand, redwood trees towering into the endless blue. And then I’d think about code-red drills and the men at the local coffee shop who sat around shouting about Hillary’s email and the prefab houses that cost the price of a small Caribbean island, and I’d realise it probably wouldn’t.

The verb “to home” denotes animals returning by instinct to their territory after leaving it. Humans, it seems, have that instinct too.

We migrated back to Ireland, and for a while home was an airy rented house by the sea. It was lovely but still impermanent, like a long holiday. I wasn’t sure where we were going afterwards, but I thought I’d know when we got there.

And then the oddest thing happened. When I was 16 I couldn’t have imagined anything stranger or more outlandish than the notion that I would one day buy the house I grew up in. Slightly more than two decades later, when my parents started talking about selling our family home and gently, kindly wondered if we might be interested, it seemed like the best idea I’d ever heard.

I homed in the most literal, most surprising sense possible. Now my son sleeps in my old bedroom under the eaves. When I climb the stairs late at night I know which step to avoid, which banister was loosened by children swinging out of it. I can trace the contours of my life in the scars on the old kitchen table. As I’m falling asleep I listen to the creaks and clangs of the house and know that, for me at least, the question of home is settled.

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