Defining Home

When is it, exactly, that a place becomes your home?

Not in the physical sense, of course. The place where I’m sitting right now writing this is certainly my home. But when do you get to the point where you’ve put down roots, where you’ve occupied a place where you weren’t born long enough to be considered a bona fide resident?

It’s a tricky question and one I’ve been mulling over lately. I recently attended a holiday party when I was speaking with a couple of women who’ve lived here the majority of their lives now—20, 30, 40 years, perhaps more. But they weren’t born here and they weren’t raised here. And so, they reminded me, they’re not L-Townites. And never will be.

I certainly don’t consider myself an L-Townite—and don’t expect to be anytime soon. I’ve only lived here for just over a year. Yet that conversation got me thinking about when, if ever, you shed your past associations with certain locations and come to see yourself as a resident of the place in which you currently live.

For most people, I think it takes a while. Quite a while.

There’s something about the place in which you’re born, in which your parents choose to raise you. Of course, if you happened to move around frequently as a youngster, perhaps you learn from an early age to embrace new locations and never really identify with a certain place. But if you spend most or all of your childhood in one location, it’s natural that you would come to identify yourself as a resident of that town, that state, even that region. (I grew up in Hulett. I’m forever a Wyomingite and a Westerner, even though I keep creeping farther east.)

And so, when your childhood memories and the key developmental years of your life are rooted in one place, odds are wherever you journey afterward, when people ask where you are from you pause, torn over blurting out the place you grew up or where you live now.

There are, of course, times when you will identify with the state and town in which you now reside. They don’t let you keep license plates forever, so the license plate on my vehicle states that I’m an Illinois resident. (Let me tell you, giving up the last external vestiges of where you grew up, like your driver’s license and license plate from your home state, is hard.) And when something great happens—a certain team makes it to the Super Bowl, a candidate from your state wins a national election—you’re proud to say where you live. But the thing is, when something not so terrific happens—like when an incredibly crooked governor gets caught doing something he shouldn’t and turns the state into the laughingstock of the country—you are certainly not a resident. You are an outsider who can’t understand how the natives could possibly have voted him into office. That’s one of the benefits, I guess.

The fact that you may not consider yourself home in a new place is particularly likely if you move to a smaller town like I did. Then, as the women I chatted with at the holiday party pointed out, it doesn’t matter how many years you live there. If you weren’t born there, if you didn’t take your first steps in that county and the whole town didn’t watch you grow up, you’re an outsider. Even if you’ve raised your own children there. Because there are things you just don’t understand. If you can’t gossip with the woman at the bank about a mutual middle school classmate of yours or explain the convoluted way in which you know the man walking by—he’s the second cousin of the brother-in-law of Bob, your preschool playmate—then you are not a native.

I lived in Des Moines for more than 6 years before I moved here. Four of those years I was in college. College is a different world, in which you are most assuredly identified with where you came from rather than where you are. Coming from Wyoming, I (and my roommate, who surprisingly was from Wyoming too) were anomalies to all the suburban Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Minneapolis students we went to school with. You’re from where? They’d ask. Then utter something along the lines of: Wow, I’ve never met anyone from there before. Or wow, I’ve never been there before. Or, of course, I’ve been to Jackson Hole.

After college, I stayed in Des Moines for a couple of years, and came to love the city even more than I had when I was in school. Yet deep down I was still a Wyomingite, even as I took pride in the way Des Moines revitalized its downtown and the pivotal political role the state plays with the Iowa caucuses.

Here? Well, here I’m still figuring things out. I have been welcomed to L-Town by many incredibly kind people. But to many of them, I am Conservative Boy’s girlfriend. Most couldn’t tell you my last name, even if they were threatened with bodily harm. (And, come to think of it, at first I wasn’t even his girlfriend ... everyone said wife or fiance, because the fact that we weren’t married or engaged was incredibly confusing. But that’s another story for another day.)

Often, if I am not with Conservative Boy, I am a strange woman that no one knows. It’s funny, because sometimes people I’ve met a few times with Conservative Boy genuinely won’t know who I am when I’m not with him. (This, of course, causes C.B. to laugh. He thinks it’s funny that my identity is so closely tied to him. My take? Not so funny.)

And so I continue to see myself as a Wyomingite.

The only problem is now I feel a bit unmoored. My parents still live in Wyoming, but not in the town in which I grew up. So visiting them now isn’t quite as much about going home as it used to be—instead, I often see them when I’m traveling and they’re traveling. Why not? Still, going back to Wyoming is as close to going home as it gets.

So perhaps the whole state is now my home. Minus Jackson Hole. I know that might cause quite a consternation among those of you who are not Wyomingites. It’s probably the place the majority of you have actually visited in the state. And Jackson Hole is beautiful. Lord almighty it’s amazing. But to me, someone who grew up in the northeastern corner of the state and regularly covered a good portion of the rest of it for school sports and other activities, Jackson Hole isn’t Wyoming. It’s where people who aren’t from Wyoming go. It’s another world entirely. But that too is another story for another day.

Needless to say, I may be an L-Town resident. I may vote in local elections here and attend the high school basketball games on Friday nights and complain as much as my neighbors about the fact the city still hasn’t picked up all the downed limbs from that storm after Christmas. I may enjoy the much more pleasant winters here and delight in the amazing flowers that blossom every spring and summer that never even have a chance to grow in my native climate.

Still, I am a Wyomingite. Just on hiatus—even if it might be a long one.


Jason said...
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Jason said...

House. Home. Birthplace. Residence. Domicile. Abode. Dwelling. Home town. Origin. Country. Homeland.

We have a lot of words that express variations of the same basic concepts. I say concepts because, as you point out, there isn't one single determining factor. If home is where I live, then my home is my apartment in Minneapolis. I was born in Eau Claire, WI (great French name, screws with the out of towners), but it was never my home, and would never think to say "Eau Claire" if asked where I am from, though if "birthplace" is specified (applications and such) I do. If home is where the heart is (to be trite), then I would have to say Chippewa. Then again, even that name is just convenient shorthand, since I barely remember living in the one house we had that was actually in Chippewa Falls.

I think you're right that "Home" for us tends to become this big, nebulous thing, bound up in residence/domicile (probably the most straightforward of the above), time, personal development, family, and memories. I still go "home" to see my parents, but they now live in a house (the fifth, and fourth on the same street) what I never lived in at all, and their last house the longest I lived there was the summer after freshman year at Drake. So for me "home" has become pretty much wholly detached from "house" but still has a connection to a physical location.

I sometimes wonder if Minneapolis will ever be "home" as opposed to just where I live. I think it is far easier to do with a larger city, but the thing is, growing up, Minnesotans were the bad guys. I don't think I'll ever much care for the Vikings. And it isn't really all that far, distance wise. Hell, if this was Illinois, I would tell everyone I was from here. We're such a big country that borders matter, oddly, both more and less. If you're a citizen of the United States, you can be a citizen of any state you choose, no application necessary. At the same time, we tend to identify with the states where we grew up. I wonder if having children changes that. One of your parents is from Montana, right? What is his/her perspective?

I ramble.

Cara Hall said...

I know what you mean. When I go home (10 years after leaving) I don't know what's going on or what's new there. But here I still don't feel 100% home. I think it takes a long time to feel "home."

Julie said...

I agree, Jason. Home is definitely much less about a physical place in this case and more about the feelings and memories that go along with it.

To an extent, I think it may be easier to feel like you fit in when you live in a city, because so many of the people around you are transplants too and you're less likely to be singled out as an outsider. At the same time, though, living in a city can be so much more impersonal that for someone who grew up in a very small town where you did know everyone, that would be an adjustment too. There's something to be said for going to the store and recognizing or knowing most of the people you see, of knowing with certainty almost every time you run errands around town you'll see someone you know. That's not always the case when you live in a city and you're one among so many. At the same time, in cities, there's more camaraderie precisely because you all originated from so many different places and come with your own stories or memories.

Your question about whether things change when you have kids is an interesting one I hadn't considered. I expect that it's easier to consider yourself "home" in a different place than you previously considered home when you have children because you are, as they say, putting roots down. I would say my mom still occasionally identifies herself as a Montana native, but from what I recall both of my parents (my father is from South Dakota) have lived in Wyoming long enough that for all practical purposes they are Wyomingites. That, again, may be a result of raising children there. And I suppose a lot of it is time.

Should I still be here in 20 years, I may think very differently about the matter. But we're young and in our 20s tend to be a bit at loose ends about who we are and where we're going anyway, so it's much easier to hold onto what we know and what is comfortable and safe when it comes to thinking of home.