Children are forever tied to the idea of home

January 28, 2007|By Susan Reimer

RECENTLY, NATIONAL PUBLIC Radio broadcast a story about young Native Americans who leave for college and the impact it has on them and on their families who remain on the reservations in Arizona and New Mexico.

In it, the narrator explains that the umbilical cords of Navajo newborns are buried near the family house, or "hogan," in a symbolic effort to keep them close. The Navajo patriarch described the ritualistic way in which the hogan is constructed, and he called it "the mother, the nurturer."

I have been thinking a lot about the meaning of home lately. My oldest child has finally moved on, his departure delayed by years of college and training that took place, almost literally, in his backyard.

He is a Marine, and it is uncertain when he will return, but he has made it clear that things had better not change while he is away.

My son and daughter have forbidden us to relocate, even if it is to move closer to the beach or to them. And, despite the fact that our house is so compact that they'd be hard-pressed to find room for a date for Thanksgiving dinner, let alone a spouse and a handful of grandkids, they have vetoed any plans to renovate or expand.

"We're used to small spaces," my son said as he packed his car.

For my children, at least, home is the house they grew up in - apparently unchanged by so much as a coat of paint. I am wondering when they will realize how much bigger - broader, deeper - home really is.

For them, home is a house, its rooms crammed with the familiar. They do not know - not yet, anyway - that those same rooms are packed with memories, that the walls echo with the voices of the past, their own voices and the voices of those who loved them, now gone.

Beyond the picket fence that surrounds that house are the friends and neighbors who have - because we have stayed in one place - witnessed their births and watched them grow, who have hollered greetings to them across the yard, across the street, across the years.

Home, my neighbor Bob says, is more than a familiar building. It is more, even, than your parents and your siblings. Home is people, people who know you and accept you and who are genuinely glad to see you when you return to it.

When she was a toddler, Bob's daughter Susannah would call out for my much-older son from her window on summer nights when she was sent to bed too early. "Where is my Joe?" she would cry. "I want my Joe."

Not too many years later, they were hurling water balloons at each other across the street and Susannah's lovelorn cries became shrieks of laughter.

Still more time passed, and Joe was chauffeuring Susannah and her girlfriends to a homecoming dance, returning to argue the politics of war with her father.

Likewise, Susannah was my daughter Jessie's playmate. They would endlessly dress and undress Barbie dolls beneath a tree in our backyard.

All these year later, they are the Barbies now, trading clothes that are not much less skimpy than the ones the dolls wore.

For my kids, at least, the walls of home extend across the street. And next door. And around the block.

Joe once said that his family's proximity to the Naval Academy was an advantage for him that should be disallowed.

He never said why.

But I suspect that on his worst days at that crucible institution, he could look up and see the water tower that casts a shadow over our house and know that on Saturday he would not visit a family of strangers who were donating their time to him.

He knew he would return to his home, to nap in his own bed, eat his own mother's spaghetti, watch sports with his own dad and bicker with his own sister.

In those moments, I think, Joe realized that home is more than a house, that it is more than the people who live there with you.

There is something there that heals the scuff marks of yesterday and steels you against the uncertainty of tomorrow.

A house is where my daughter lives now, with her college roommates. It is where my son lives with his military buddies.

Home is something else altogether. It is a collection of memories, some as vague as a half-forgotten dream, some as sharp as the intake of breath on a cold morning. Home is the grainy, gray 8-millimeter movie that runs in an endless loop in our heads, recording a life and a lifetime.

To hear audio clips of selected Susan Reimer columns, go to

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