When I came back from college for the first time, my mom told me I no longer smelled like home. My arms slackened in our hug as I processed this. The familiarity of my sea-foam green kitchen felt distorted. I knew that in August I had left home, but I had never imagined that over those months home was also leaving me.
I can’t pinpoint the moment I lost the certainty of home in the same way that I can’t remember the moment of falling asleep. It left me in pieces, and it was only once I noticed the holes that I realized what I’d lost. For 18 years, I called the same place home, so much life for a small town to hold. This pocket of central Massachusetts is so saturated with memories its air sometimes feels heavy for me to breathe. I’m happy to have the fresh breeze of unburdened spaces, but I trusted I’d always have home to cradle me with that comforting weight, that these places would always be there to ground me.
But the field where my family bought our Christmas tree each year is now a gas station. The last frozen yogurt shop built in town during the great froyo boom on the late aughts has closed. The high school track was torn up last summer, and I’m left fearing the day that I will no longer be able to deposit my memories into physical spaces. I’m scared by the prospect of carrying home simply as an idea. An idea is a fragile thing, one that doesn’t offer the same certainty as places built of wood and asphalt.
Yet places change and fade into rearview mirrors, and home must become an abstraction. Home becomes memories without beginnings or endings, just middles. Home is now a smell. Home is sticky hands from ice-cream cones and the patient fall of oak leaves. Newspapers on the front step and a car still running in the driveway because the journey ended before the NPR segment. The clink of stirring teaspoons and the curve of a highway exit ramp. Creaky swing sets and abundance and laughter like wind.
If home is a place, then mine is changing. If home is a smell, mine has already left me. But if home is something more, a box of puzzle piece memories, a web of displaced feelings, then maybe it always offers the promise of return. If home is people and moments and belonging, then mine is inseparable from myself.
When I came back from college for the fourth time, I sat in my living room one hundred miles from New Haven and a world away from Yale watching the sunset breathe life into a brittle March sky. I grabbed the family car keys from the kitchen and chased the changing sky across town. I knew exactly where I was going. Home is where you know the best spot to watch a sunset.
I pulled the car along bank of Sandra Pond and made my way through bare trees and drifted snow, reminders of the unfulfilled promise of New England spring. The shores of the pond welcomed me as I sat wrapped in a blanket taken from my couch and watched the sky use the still water as a canvas for its colors. Home may have left me in pieces, but in that moment, it came back to me all at once.
Elizabeth Hopkinson | firstname.lastname@example.org .