So there he was, this old neighbor, and I recovered control and smiled. We chatted as if we had just seen each other yesterday, while I downloaded the epiphany: home was not just the United States, but a specific geographical location: Oyster Bay, NY. The vague ache I had lived with for years overseas finally felt relief. Returning to the States wasn't enough; I needed to return here.
But home is larger than just a geographical place: it is also the community of people with whom you lived while growing up--the neighborhood an extended living room. Home was the people who waved to you from their cars, whose kids you played with, who you bumped into at the post office and supermarket. They become your extended family. Nobody knows you like these people.
I had gotten that later part--which is why I thought anywhere my friends and family were was home enough for me. We found the local beaches, boatyards and clamshacks in our new geographical locations. But here was a new aspect of home I hadn't ever experienced: a particalar geographical location. Something 'in the blood' recognized it with one simple greeting from a former neighbor.
This man knows me from early childhood. His son is still my brother’s very good friend, at all the weddings and funerals. He knows more than I even know about myself in some ways. And though he knows nothing of me now, that didn’t matter in the brief exchange we had. I had a new definition of ‘home.’ With people who knew my nickname, knew the house I grew up in, knew my father had been building a boat. They knew how long I wore braces, and how I played with the redhead up the street. I didn’t have to explain any of this history to him.
This came at a time in my life when I was a tired foreigner, tired of explaining who I was all the time, to a people for whom personal history mattered. Probably this is true for every culture, whether they know or not. Ancestral worship, genealogy and in America the "Roots" phenomenon of the '70's attest to this longing to know who we are, where we are from and who we belong to.
Every person I met in Lille was so curious as to why on earth an American—especially a New Yorker—would choose to move to their city. They wanted to know my background, about my family, and the geography of my locale. Not in a nosy way--they usually dug these facts out of me with the utmost discretion. But they were curious. They didn’t get the chance to interact with too many Americans, and I was happy to oblige. I was just getting tired after several years of it. Wouldn’t it have been nice to just hand them an autobiographical DVD?!
The relief of not having to repeatedly create history for myself washed over me. Perhaps only ex-pats know this feeling. For some, it’s probably a non-issue. For others, I know they go an entire lifetime with the ache for the homeland throbbing. Now I understood why (although I was dismayed to learn that this opened a new ache; how do you ache for something you didn’t know you didn’t know?!)
Some need to get away from the stifling constraints of home; for others, home created a launching pad into the big wide world, creating the healthy desire to encounter new neighbors, wherever they lived. Good stuff, but a return to roots so often necessary for the soul to breathe.
One of my favorite definitions of home was written by poet Robert Frost, in Death of the Hired Man: "Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."
The little time warp with my former neighbor opened and closed in a matter of minutes. We moved on to our next errand. I left with my epiphany, the basis of all good poems. Funny…I still haven’t written that poem...