Perry Como sang, “There’s no place like home for the holidays” in 1954, when post-war families were already moving away from where they’d grown up in much larger numbers than had been common before the two World Wars. Going “home” for the holidays, back to where their parents lived, and possibly many generations before them, was getting harder, but it was still the nostalgic ideal. It still is, for many, even though the population as a whole has become even more transient, moving for jobs, for cultural opportunities, for education, for warm winters.
“Home is where you hang your hat” still applies to where you live on a daily basis even when the type of hat that used to hang on hat stands has become, not extinct, but on the retro side (though vastly becoming to those who can carry it off well. Hi Jeremy!) But the “home for the holidays” notion applies these days to more to wherever your family gathers, and that doesn’t necessarily mean genetic family as much as family of choice. Sometimes, in fact, young families count their first holiday season in a home of their own as a milestone. Just as families come in various permutations, shifting with time, so do our concepts of “home.”
Then there’s the truth of Thomas Wolfe’s You can’t Go Home Again, published in 1940 but set in the 20s and 30s, a book on the one hand about a writer who based a novel on his own hometown and found its inhabitants outraged to point of sending death threats (you thought those were a new fad? Hah!) But the book, and the evolving usage of the term, is about more than a single writer’s experience. It’s about inevitable change. Not only can’t you go back to the home you remember, because it’s changed along with everything else in the world, but your very subjective memories don’t portray a true time and place. Like the all too many people who seem to want to “Make America Great Again” (apparently, in their minds, like life in the 50s,) life wasn’t as great back then as they think they remember it being, and even if it had been, change, much of it for the better, was unavoidable. I’d bet that most of the folks with the nostalgia mind set wouldn’t want to do without many of their modern conveniences and entertainments.
This is as good a point as any to say that yes, I know our theme is about knowing one’s place in a hierarchical society or subgroup, rather than a sense of place in a geographical sense, but I think there’s some crossover involved. The nostalgic-for-the-50s group isn’t limited to the central, more traditionally agricultural parts of the country, but it does seem to be more prevalent there, as well as places that have lost their manufacturing and mining underpinnings. These people feel their economic stature falling, and their stature as citizens, too. They don’t get respect by what they picture as the coastal, educated elites. Respect is a factor hard to define, but you know it when you feel you don’t have it. And when their children move away for education, work, “city life,” and come home only for the holidays, if that, they feel it all the more. You can’t go home again, and if you’ve stayed home, you try so hard to hang on to the old nostalgic views that you’ll vote against your own economic interests if there’s a chance of getting respect.
Well. I didn’t start out with the intention of getting political. It’s the concept of “home” that I’ve been contemplating.
I’ve called places home in three different areas, although in more than three different houses/apartments, but at this point I’ve lived for forty years in the same house, gardened the same soil, hiked the same trails.
The house where I mostly grew up is just over an hour away from here, and I make the trip more and more often as my father gets older and more in need of help—he’ll be 97 in about a month. He spent this holiday weekend with me, and the extended family gathered at my nearby brother’s house, and things went well, but for my dad it wasn’t being “home for the holidays,” and nothing will ever feel like that again now that my mother is gone.
For me this house, where I can watch the squirrels and birds around my bird feeder as I type this, is home. I hope it stays that way for a very long time. But I spend quite a bit of time at his home, which still feels like home to me in a different way. It’s disorienting to go back and forth between the homes, and, in a sense, between times. The town where he lives has progressed over time, of course, and that’s kind of disorienting for me, too, but his house, brand new in the mid-fifties, hasn’t changed much except for needed (increasingly needed) repairs. I do have roots there, though, and here, and even some nostalgic ones for where I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late sixties. I’ve been back there a few times, and each time the you-can’t-go-home-again truism is emphatically confirmed. Neither I nor the place are what we were then. I even have a few roots in the White Mountains of New Hampshire where I've had a cabin retreat for over twenty years; I try not to get too attached, since I’ll probably have to sell it soon, and the more help my dad needs the less time I can spend there.
A sense of place means a lot to me, probably more than it should. Places change, people change and move on, and that’s not a bad thing, except when maybe it is—as a kid I roamed woodlands in central Massachusetts and imagined myself linked to the Native Americans who were there first, but of course I was an intruder. Peoples move, continents move; continents, at least, don’t feel guilty about it.
I’ve traveled moderately often, and in my writing I do considerable research, both historical and geographical, to create a sense of place and time. Those are important to me, in life as well as in fiction. Actually being there means much more than reading about a place, though, or seeing pictures. I remember being at the Grand Canyon, taking pictures, of course, with everyone around me doing the same, and I thought about the fact that there are some places, some aspects of nature, that are too big for us to just “be there,” in the moment, too big to hold in memories. We try to cut them down to our size by confining segments in static photos. Maybe memories of home, of our lives, are like that. We take photos, and we save as much in the way of memories in our minds as we can, but being in the moment and the place are what counts most.
Wishing us all health and joy and maybe even peace in the coming year, and wishing us all happy moments and places that we can truly be in, and feel—and, if we’re writers, of course, translate into our writing well enough to bring a reader into a moment worth enjoying, even though, like memories, they’re fleeting.