Essay: On My Way Home

On my way home (“OMW home” for those who text) is a message my son and I often send to each other. But that simple phrase makes a statement beyond my impending return to my apartment. It is—on a much deeper level—a statement about my long-term emotional state.

It feels strange to say such a thing about myself at 50. Most of my peers have a husband, a wife, or a significant other; a house; children who are grown and moved out or married; grandchildren; and plans for their approaching retirement…if they haven’t already retired. I, on the other hand, have no husband (or realistic prospect), no house earning equity, and my only child still lives at home with me. I am a “non-traditional” college student and, at the moment, I don’t have a job that pays enough to support me and my son, much less enough to make any plans for retirement. I am—as unbelievable as it may be—starting over.

Most people I meet would assume that I have a home. After all, I am not “homeless.” I have an address. I live in a particular apartment. My parents, despite their frequent travels, also live in a specific and permanent location. But neither place really feels like home to me.

I lived in 3 different places before I was 6. I was born in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, and my first residence was in a mobile home my parents bought and set up (literally) in my grandparents’ backyard, at the edge of their back patio under the apple tree. Just before I turned 2, we relocated the mobile home to Enid, Oklahoma. By the time I was 3, we had moved again, to a house across town. I saw my first tornado while we lived in that house (ironically, it happened while the Wizard of Oz was showing on TV). I went to kindergarten and first grade at nearby schools—well, most of first grade, anyway.

Before my first-grade year was complete, my dad’s company promoted him, assigning him a position in another state. We were moving again. To allow me to finish first grade, my parents sent me back to Okmulgee to live with my grandparents, where I attended classes with a group of 6-year-old strangers until I completed the school year. When summer began, I joined my parents in the new town—the one that turned out to be the only place I’ve ever really felt at home.

I grew up in a small, south-central Kansas town called Wellington. It became my hometown, even though it wasn’t where I was born or where I graduated from high school. It was home because it wasn’t just the place that I got older—it was the place that shaped my thoughts, values, and attitudes; my hopes, dreams, and ambitions. It played a pivotal role in determining who I am now.

Wellington was a comfortable place where I knew the people who lived around me—not only my next-door neighbors, but in the houses all around for blocks. My life was full of people that I respected and trusted.

I knew the people who ran the nearby businesses—the Phillips 66 station that my friend’s dad owned, where I learned to use the payphone to call home and signal for someone to call me back without wasting my dime; and the bike shop with the pet monkey named Gizmo, who would steal items out of your pockets if you were careless and left them hanging out where he could reach them. He especially loved gloves and knit hats. There was a combination lumberyard and hardware store across the street, owned by that nice Mr. Smith. When we were older, my brothers and I discovered that Mr. Smith had been the one supplying my dad with those paint stirring sticks—the big ones for the 5-gallon buckets—that he used as paddles. We wondered why a new one appeared each time we did away with the old one. We might have figured it out sooner if we’d bothered to read what was printed on them.

Between the hardware store and the railroad tracks, where the seemingly endless trains with 100 or more cars would clatter by in the early summer when they shipped the harvested wheat, there was a small creek where I used to catch tadpoles, snails, and crawdads. I kept them in pickle jars in my room until the water stank and my mom made me throw them out or take them back. I don’t remember why I wanted them…curiosity, I suppose.

Our house was big and old—more than 100 years old, even then—and it was full of interesting things. It was a warm, inviting place. It had a big front porch with a swing and there were flowers all around. It welcomed me when I approached; I felt safe when I was there; and I was content to stay. Even in my dreams of being a “grown up,” I never imagined living anywhere else. It was the one place in my life where I felt warm, and safe, and loved.

It was originally outside the city limits—in the country, really—and had belonged to Mr. Owens, the local postmaster, so we had more than just a house and a garage. Our property had many large trees—mostly native elms—and the fat one by the driveway branched low enough to climb. An old cedar hedge ran around the garden and the dead interior made a tunnel where we used to hide and spy on people who passed on the sidewalk. We never really learned anything interesting.

Our house had a floor furnace for heat, light switches with two push-buttons (red for on, black for off), and a huge, freestanding claw-foot, cast iron tub in the bathroom. It had the coolest doorknobs I had ever seen—some were glass faceted like diamonds, others were glossy black or white ceramic, and still others were metal, with intricate designs pressed into the front. If all the doors were open, the downstairs made a complete circular route, perfect for chasing a dog—or your brother—around and around. My bedroom was upstairs, and the screens on my window were hinged at the top. I could unlatch them and crawl onto the roof to sit on cool spring and warm summer nights. My parents never knew about that; my mom would have freaked out. She doesn’t like heights.

The house included a “root cellar” you could reach from the enclosed back porch without going outside (a very handy thing to have in Kansas in the spring). My parents knew they never had to look for me if the storm sirens sounded; I was usually the first to the cellar door. I spent a lot of time down there during thunderstorms—with my teddy bear, my favorite blanket, and (when I was older) my transistor radio—listening to music or sleeping on the rollaway bed in the corner while my parents played cards or dominos.

There was a small brooder house, where newly-hatched chicks were raised; and a “sun porch” that was really a separate little structure built directly over the root cellar and connected to the back porch by a tunnel that covered the cellar stairs. The sun porch had screens on 3 sides, with vertical strips of 1” horizontal louvers, so a breeze could always find its way in—if there was any breeze to be had. It was a great place for summer meals or playing without the bother of summertime insects.

There was a large chicken house that my dad turned into a woodworking shop with a big, cast iron potbellied stove where we roasted peanuts in the winter. The built-in roosts around the outer walls of the building were perfect for storing his tools and supplies. We set up a makeshift family room—with an old black-and-white TV, a worn-out couch, and a piece of juice-stained ivory carpet from the dining room—where we could sit while my dad worked at his hobbies on weekend nights. We spent many happy hours in “the shop.” My dad used to say that when it rained, you could still tell that it used to be a chicken house. Apparently, wet chickens stink. Who knew?

My favorite part of the property by far, though, was the big red barn that once housed the horses and the mail cart that Mr. Owens used on his delivery rounds. There was a place for the horses on the lower level, and an upstairs hayloft—complete with a loft door that looked out over what was now the alley. There was a wooden chute where you could drop hay down to the lower level (or shout down to or spy silently on those below), and a big horizontally-sliding door at the back, where the mail cart was parked after completing the day’s routes. It was one of my favorite spots, and I spent many hours there, eating raw sunflower seeds from the foot-wide blossoms of the 6-foot sunflowers that grew between the barn and the shop while I read books, drew pictures, or just listened to music and daydreamed about turning the barn into my own private guest house when I grew up. Until then, I used it for Halloween parties and sleepovers with friends.

And I had plenty of friends—at school, at church, and in neighborhoods all over town. Most of the families knew each other so well that the kids were almost interchangeable. When I was at a friend’s house, their parents would discipline me when necessary, right along with their own kids. My parents did the same when my friends were at our house. I was as at ease in my friends’ homes as I was in my own. I spent so much time at their houses that I knew where the bathrooms and the glasses were without asking.

I wasn’t afraid to ride my bicycle anywhere in town. I trusted the people around me—even those I didn’t actually know—and this small, familiar place was everything I thought home should be—right up until my parents uprooted me, over my strenuous objections, in the middle of 8th grade.

In the 8th grade, I was just getting comfortable with myself—especially at school. I wasn’t really a part of the “in” crowd, because my parents weren’t rich, or well-known in the town, or members of the Elks Lodge—the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (the members’ kids used to tell us that BPOE meant Best People On Earth)—but just same, I was recognized and liked by most of the popular kids. There were cheerleaders and football players who knew me by name. My school days were pleasant, calm, and most importantly, devoid of torture from the older kids. I was beginning to make my mark in junior high. I had earned a reputation as a good student, and smart was a highly desirable adjective.

I also had a huge crush on the good-looking older brother of one of my best friends—a popular freshman on the tennis team; amazingly, he was actually aware of and acknowledged my existence, and there had been recent rumors that he might be noticing me, too.

I was living the dream—successfully making the extremely difficult social climb from a teenaged “nobody” to a “somebody.” I had accomplished it all on my own—and beyond everything else, I was happy.
Early in December, after a Thanksgiving trip to visit my dad’s family, he received a job offer from the company where my uncle (his brother) worked. Much to my dismay, he accepted the job. We moved over the Christmas break. Merry Christmas to me. I started a new school in a new town along with the new year. That was it; that was the end. Essentially, my life was over. My home was lost, and my heart hasn’t truly felt at home anywhere since.

Hugo, Oklahoma was my father’s hometown. He grew up there; these people were his friends, his family, and his places. Everyone in town seemed to know who I was, even though I didn’t have a clue who they were. It was another small town, but it was nothing like the one I had left behind. Instead of warm, open, and comfortable, it felt cold, closed off, and full of tension. Everyone there seemed to be related to everyone else—hell, half of these strangers were related to me—and like most small towns, no one could keep anything secret for long because there was always someone watching—someone who knew somebody that was a friend of your neighbor’s cousin’s mother-in-law…

Even in school, I found no refuge—the ancient man (it seemed to me) who was my math teacher during my junior and senior years had also taught my father more than 20 years earlier—and remembered him. I was horrified. Where else but in this backward hole could such a thing happen?

Hugo never became my home, even though I lived there as long as I had lived in Wellington. The difference was I never felt as if I belonged there. I never fit in and, honestly, I never wanted to. I was a Midwestern rock-and-roll girl, plopped unceremoniously and totally against my will into a town overrun with cattle ranchers and country music. I understood the language of art, writing, grammar, books, and being independent—not pickup trucks, cursing, beer, vomiting, and nepotism.

Hugo immediately impressed me as the kind of town where there was no ambition—no point in having any—and nothing changed my mind as time dragged on. There was very little opportunity for an intelligent woman, unless you wanted to be a teacher or accountant. Those around me who found any ambition within themselves left Hugo. The rest looked for the simplest solution—scratching out a living at dead-end jobs, or just having child after child and living off the welfare, like their neighbors. It was the kind of place where people never learned to expect or demand anything better from life.

I can’t forget the day I stood in the Busy Bee—the burger joint where I worked—and watched out the wide front windows as the mayor (in his late 50s and a notorious drinker) started an argument and then a fist fight with a Choctaw man nearly 20 years his senior in the middle of downtown Hugo. To my amazement, that man was re-elected—over and over again. These people had no pride.

My goal for myself—the one thing I was determined to accomplish in my life if nothing else—became to get away; to go where I would be free to think for myself; to experience and learn about all the interesting places and things in the world outside. I wanted to see works of art, hear music performed, and absorb knowledge about others and myself. I could not sit idly by, allowing my dreams, talent, and intelligence to stagnate and die in a place where nothing ever improved and yet the people were reluctant to leave because it required too much effort; because this was where they had always been; or because they couldn’t think of anyplace better to go. Maybe for them, home was what was easiest.

When I finally escaped at 19, I started searching for my own home. Nineteen years old… That was a long, long time ago; I have been searching for most of my life.

I moved a lot when I was on my own. A couple of years in Oklahoma City, another couple back in Wellington, two more in Okmulgee, about 3 years in northwest Arkansas, and then to Texas. Here in Texas, I continued to move every two years or so…from Plano, to Dallas, to Allen.

I made a real effort at creating a home in Allen. I bought a cute little pink-brick house, right behind the cemetery. It was a dream-come-true to have someplace of my own. It was even the same layout as my parents’ house, only smaller, so it had a head start on feeling like home. I could do whatever I wanted to it because it was mine. After years in apartments with white or beige walls, I painted the rooms in soothing colors… When I removed the horrendous olive-green carpet, I found beautiful hardwood floors underneath. My neighbor mowed my yard and accepted freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies as payment. It was a peaceful, quiet place. I began to settle in; get to know my neighbors; plant flowers… But before I’d been there long enough to really make it my home, I met a man who would change everything.

We had only dated a few months when we learned that we were expecting a baby. Like responsible adults, we discussed the situation and considered our options; eventually, we decided to get married and try to be a family. It was all very reasonable and sensible, but deep in my heart it always bothered me that there had never been a definite point when he declared he loved me and wanted to spend the rest of his life with me. He never actually proposed to me. There was a distinct lack of romance. My heart used to ache when other women told stories about how their future husbands proposed marriage. In my heart, I was never able to get past that, and because of it, I was never able to feel safe and loved with him.

With a growing toddler and my husband’s Snap-on Tools business, we soon needed a larger house, so we sold my house in Allen and moved to Plano…to the house he had purchased years before we married—the house that he had shared with his first wife before she left him. The tile, the carpet, the wall colors, the light fixtures and faucets…all the little details that reflect the personality and tastes of the owner…were chosen by someone else—so it didn’t really feel like my home at all.

After several difficult years in that house, we moved to Coppell, supposedly to start over and to find a house that could belong only to us. I knew the real reason was to be nearer my husband’s work—he always chased his dreams, and never allowed me to chase mine—but I’m a hopeless romantic at heart, and I was still hopeful. By the time his business failed and we lost our house, our marriage was failing as well. After spending a year in a rented house, I gave up my dream of finding my home with him.

When I eventually found the courage to admit that my marriage was over, I was free to resume a life that was more or less of my own choosing. For a while, my son and I remained in Coppell. When he began attending an alternative school in Grapevine, we moved to make it more convenient. Finally, I got the opportunity to pursue my abandoned dreams, and I moved to Denton to begin a long-delayed college degree.

After so many moves and so many places—I have yet to find that feeling of having a home again. Maybe there’s something I should be doing to make a place feel like home. Maybe it’s because I don’t own a place; or maybe I don’t stay long enough; or maybe it’s just harder for me to get to know or trust people now. Maybe these places don’t feel like home because I don’t find what I’m looking for. I think I finally know what I’m looking for, I just don’t know how to find it, or keep it, or make it happen.

I am positive that such a feeling exists, because I have experienced it before; and, although it has been a long, long time, those feelings are still vivid and real in my memory. It seems like an absurdly simple concept, and yet it is nearly impossible to define.

I still have hope that one day I will find another place where I can feel that warmth and comfort again; a place where I feel safe and loved, and free to be myself; where the view from my window (or my porch, or my deck) can soothe my heart and bring peace to my soul. A place with warm rains in the spring and gentle breezes in the summer; crisp, cold sunshine in the fall and deep, silent blankets of snow in the winter. A place where I can think my thoughts aloud, write until I have no more words, read until I fall asleep, cry until I have no more tears, or even sing at the top of my voice—if that’s what I feel like doing. A place where I love to be when it storms as much as when the sun shines; so familiar that I can cross it effortlessly in the dark; a place that embeds itself so deeply in my being and becomes so much a part of me that I can’t imagine being anywhere else, and I can’t ever truly leave it behind.

Maybe it can be any place where I feel safe, loved, and protected; a place where, even if I’m the only one there, I can never truly be alone—because the love of those who care for me lives on within my heart.

I suppose I have no choice but to continue searching for the place I can call home. Until I find it, I probably won’t understand why it took so long. I believe with all my heart that it exists and, one day, I will find the home I have searched for for so much of my life.

But for now, I am still on my way.

One thought on “Essay: On My Way Home

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