For three years my home was a speeding Volkswagen on a stretch of Interstate 80/90. I had a house on either end, but it was on that too-familiar strip of highway that I felt most myself, caught between the work I chose at Notre Dame and the family and friends I left in Illinois. In that expansive stretch of picturesque red barns and drying corn sheaths against a bright blue sky, I was at home both in Chicago and South Bend.
When I first started working at Notre Dame, I called my mom as I left work one day. She asked what I was up to, and I responded, “Driving home.”
“Why are you coming home now?” she questioned.
“No, Mom. Not home, home. My apartment, home,” I explained.
“That’s not home. This is your home,” she countered.
Ever since, that question has resonated and rattled within me. Where is home?
Before I was a student at Notre Dame, our two-story house tucked away in the southwest Chicago suburbs was home. It was an old and peaceful structure that was constantly abuzz with activity from its six residents. I had lived within the same walls since the day I was born. Those walls had seen me learn to stand up on old hardwood floors, had watched me learn cursive at the dining room table, had turned a blind eye as I wrestled with my brother for the remote in the family room and let me cry on them as I wailed in timeout in the corner of the kitchen after bruising said brother. Through watching bad dance routines to R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People” and teenage gossip sessions in oversized blue armchairs, the house came to know me and I it. I knew the sound of each person’s creak on the stairs and learned always to turn off the washing machine before taking a shower. Until I left for Notre Dame it was the only home I had ever known.
Notre Dame complicated things. It gave me another peaceful place that I felt was mine. There were dorm rooms plastered with pictures of football games and with roommates as friendly and comfortable as my family. Truly, when we had longer winter breaks, like the six-week stretch before I studied abroad, I sat in Chicago surrounded by my family in my childhood home and felt homesick for Notre Dame.
France gave me a home, too. It felt like the place my soul was at peace. With their quiet but elegant demeanor and reserved smiles, I felt the French were my spirit’s family. Their love of food and rest, their appreciation for quiet time to think and enjoy beauty resonated with a part of me I had never known.
Since that time, I often wonder if that’s where I belong, where my home should be someday.
After graduation I quickly established a one-bedroom apartment just a few miles from Notre Dame. I filled it with photos and artwork and colorful dishware and wine and soon it, too, felt homey. My friends cooed about how the place looked and felt like an extension of me.
But my heart, my love moved away . . . to Enid, Oklahoma. No way could my home ever be there, I thought. The first time I visited, we sped down the dusty highway as tumbleweeds and armadillos meandered alongside us. Everything was foreign and dusty and old-timey Western. I couldn’t fathom how Oklahoma, let alone a stringent military base with rules like “No running with headphones” or “Don’t enter the grocery store without a military escort,” could ever feel like home. But with time and multiple visits, love made this place my home, too, and I felt a momentary pang of sadness the day he got a new assignment.
Now I’m moving to yet another apartment, my first married dwelling, where we will impermanently settle. I wonder if the six months we have there will be long enough to make a house a home, or if we’re better off being gypsies who feel attached to no one place. We could easily live out of boxes for a time and wait to invest in real furniture, knowing this is a temporary residence. But can I start a new life without a home to cradle me?
No, I’ve decided. However short this tenancy may last, rural North Carolina should become home, even if only fleetingly. It will witness but a few life events — the unpacking and coordination of two lives, an attempt at self-employment, and probably a first marital fight — but it will also host the beginnings of normalcy and forever. For those memories to take root, so must we.
And so we unpack — fully, physically, emotionally — into this new space. We’re filling it with photos of Chicago, paintings of Notre Dame, and memories of our wedding to remind us from where we’ve come.
But there’s room on the walls for a pilot’s license, souvenirs from adventures to come and baby photos aplenty.
In the years ahead, there will come a string of different towns, different lives and different houses. Some may come easier than others, but in all we need someplace where we can come home and feel at home. At the end of it all, I imagine we’ll have a trail of homes, dotting the country, or even the world.
They’ll mark the places we settled in and where the homes settled us.
Tara Hunt McMullen is a former associate editor of this magazine.