Musings on my recent trip to Texas . . .
I've never read Thomas Wolfe's best-known novel, but I have always admired its title. In fact, I think that it is one of the all-time great book titles -- encompassing, as it does, childhood, memory, family legacy, sense of place, and questions of identity. Furthermore, it manages to do all of that it in such a simple, memorable way that it has become part of our cultural phraseology. Certainly it has been echoing in my mind since adolescence, and every time I travel to a place that I once lived I think of it.
"Home" is a complicated concept for me. Is it a family, a house, a town, a national identity? These have all been fluid containers in my adult life. I consider well-known definitions:
Home is . . . "where the heart is;" "where you hang your hat;" "where they have to take you in." I don't know about you, but I could easily name more than one "place" -- and yet, there is no one place. It has been a long time, and maybe never, since I could think to myself: I belong here. Even when I was a child, living in Temple, Texas from ages 5-18, I would secretly think to myself: Yea, but I was born in Germany.
Revisiting a place is never the same as belonging to a place -- as being a part of its daily rhythms. As a visitor, even a welcome one, you are an irrelevancy. You just don't matter anymore because you belong to the past tense. Even if you once belonged, that little space in which you once resided has since filled up -- and then you have been changed, too, and probably wouldn't even fit that space even if it were available.
You realize that you have been relegated to a Christmas card list -- you are no longer on active duty, friendship-wise. All of your old favorite places are just trips down memory lane.
It has been two years since my family left Houston -- a place that surely qualifies as a frontrunner, should I ever be required to name a "home." I have lived there, on and off, since I was 23 years old. Important friendships happened there. Meeting my husband happened there. I received influential education there. I have so many layers of experience and memory there. And yet, I don't really belong there anymore. As if to confirm that fact, during my recent visit I kept on getting lost. Not really "lost" -- but more of a subtle disorientation. I had lost my edge; I had forgotten which lane to be in, and misplaced some street names. Some of that was due to my faulty memory, and some of it was due to the fact that Houston is always, always changing. As my friend Laura said, (borrowing from that genius Joni Mitchell), "they paved Paradise and put up a parking lot." If Houston is about anything, it is about the future. It is about constant construction and the need to widen yet another freeway. Every year, new places spring up while others are torn down. Yes, I know this happens everywhere . . . but in Houston it seems to happen in double-time.
I was terribly saddened to discover that the West University JMH (the little grocery store that has been part of West U since the 1950s) had closed its doors for good. It had been a link to the past; it had been the antithesis of corporate sameness and the strip shopping center; it had been a link to my past. When my oldest daughter was a toddler, we lived down the street from JMH and we used to walk there nearly every day. When I was a full-time working mother, I would swoop in for that evening's dinner. When the weather turned hot and humid, the girls and I would go for coke Icees or ice cream. Two years ago it was there; now it's gone.
There are native Houstonians, plenty of them -- but "my" Houston has always been a commuter town in flux. Graduate students and oil-and-gas executives -- they come and go. When I think of "my" Houston from 13 years ago I realize that no one is still there. Everyone is somewhere else, and for some, I don't know even know where.
My children think of themselves as Houstonians -- still, after two years in England. They pouted all the way to the airport; the youngest one cried on the plane. When we arrived back "home" to our current house in England they both sulked and refused to talk to their father -- He who made us leave Houston.
My children slip in and out of accents as easily as they change their clothes from coats and boots to shorts and sandals. How long, I wonder, will they hold stubbornly to this notion of being Houstonians? When will they become more English than American? My oldest daughter has lived in Texas for 6 out of 14 years; my youngest daughter has lived in Texas for 5 out of 10 years. With every passing year these proportions will become less solid, less significant. I realize that, like me, they will probably never be one or the other -- but some strange homeless hybrid always a little prone to "the grass is greener" syndrome. When we lived in Houston, my oldest daughter dreamed of going to Oxford. Now that we live near Oxford, she dreams of American universities.
Over the years, the girls will probably continue to be sentimental about Texas -- especially if we only visit in April (as opposed to the summer, when the heat and humidity and mosquitoes are unbearable). Their feelings about their Texas "home" will be less and less rooted in what is real. Can a place be "home" if you don't actually live there? I doubt it; I really do.
However, just living in a place doesn't make it home either.
I am most "Texan" when I am in England; when I am actually in Texas, it can feel very strange and foreign to me. When I am in Texas, I am reminded why so many of my decisions have led away from that place.
My parents were both Army brats and they lived all over the world. They chose life in a small Texas town so that my brother and I could have settled childhoods -- so we could have both an internal and external definition of "home." But they brought their outsider outlook with them, and I grew up dreaming of big cities and other cultures. My brother and I left that small town and have continued to move and move. Our children have peripatetic childhoods. They are confident and insecure in that way that people are when they have to learn how to constantly "fit in" to something new. They will have the rich identities and language skills that I always longed for . . . and they will probably hate me for it.