My dad lets up on the gas pedal for a second, and everyone in the car leans closer to the windows. It’s not safe to go around this turn too slowly, because of all the traffic. The second to look out the window is so fast, and my sister is on the side closer to the house, so she gets a better look than I do.
It’s a fleeting glimpse of something I only half remember. We do this every summer, and every year the house is a little different. Last year, they painted it that awful blue color. This year, they’ve added a brand new porch.
“Now,” my mom says from the front seat, “see, I always wanted to do a wrap around porch. Wouldn’t that have been nicer?”
Welcome to the last day of family vacation, and welcome to the home I thought I was going to grow up in.
When you’re a tiny kid, everything feels permanent, until it doesn’t anymore. I thought we lived in the same house until I was five years old, and I only found out when I was older that that wasn’t true. My family had, in fact, lived in a smaller house across the street from the house I remembered, in Lansing Michigan, until I was about two. Prior to my birth, my parents and older sister had lived in a duplex on a different street. But, when I was five, as far as I was concerned I had lived in the same yellow house forever. And that year, my parents sat us kids down to ask us how we might feel about moving “Up North.”
My dad’s job was getting transferred, so really we were moving regardless of how the stubborn kindergartener felt. It would be the first of five moves that all happened before I started middle school.
For the uninitiated, “Up North” means Northern Michigan, though different Michiganders have different definitions of what truly constitutes “Up North.” In my family, it always meant a several hour drive at least, to either Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, or the Northern portion of the Lower Peninsula. My dad’s job was transferred to Cadillac, so in this case, we were talking about the latter. But my parents weren’t able to buy a house at that time, and they found that renting in that area was much harder than it had been in the city. Houses for rent for a family of four were hard to come by, and were typically only for rent while the owner tried to sell them.
Thus, we lived in three houses within one and a half years. For the working class, place can be so strange.
In the language of my family, we call all of the houses by different names. The homes we lived in Lansing are called after the streets they were on (“the house on X street, the first house on Y street, the second house on Y street…).
And then there was “The First House Up North.”
Followed by “The Ucky House.”
And then the last house, which had too many names to count. It was in a smaller town, we loved our neighbors, and we wanted to stay there forever. My parents wanted to buy that house, but it ended up not being possible. That house, that was the house we drove by slowly every summer for most of the rest of my childhood. That house was our dream house.
My parents bought the house they now live in the year I turned nine. It was not our dream house, but it was good enough. Finally achieving the dream of homeownership was good enough, was better than nothing. At the end of the summer, just before school started, I lay on my bed in my little bedroom. It was the last new bedroom of so many. I stared at the ceiling, wondering what was next. After so many years assuming that wherever I was was permanent, until it wasn’t, I had come to assume that everything was was temporary. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure how to feel. I wasn’t wondering where we would end up next, and so I had nothing to do with that energy.
I told my mom I was homesick, it was the closest word I had for the strange longing in my heart.
“Well, where are you homesick for?”
But I wasn’t sure. I was never sure. I felt like there was a home, somewhere, just out of reach in my past. Somewhere there had been a place that was right, where I fit, where things made sense. I just could never put my finger quite on where that place had been. There were so many places to choose from. But every summer, we drove slowly past the dream house on our way home from our working class family vacation. We sat in the car and missed it, all together, four individuals for once united. We shared our wonderings about the people who lived there, people we called “The New Owners” long after the newness had surely worn off.
Two decades later, I moved myself around. Once, I stayed in a house for two whole years, but then I was certain it was time to move on. The adult me is addicted to reading rental and real estate listings, addicted to the purge that seems to go along with moving. The adult me feels homesick for every single room she has ever called her own. Every floor, every window, they are all etched in my memory of all of the homes I have loved, or hated, and lost.
In nearly perfect symmetry with my nomadic childhood, my wife and I moved three times in our child’s first year of life. This summer, we moved into the house we are in now. We say we are going to stay here. This is our dream house. We planted blackberries in the backyard.
But I am still homesick.