Stories of home

Author: Brian Doyle ’78

Wandering through the thick copse of birches in my yard not long ago, idly looking for birds’ nests and mouse bones, I discovered a totem pole I had never noticed before. It shocked me. It was 15 feet high, black, and topped with a peculiar grinning face. It stood next to a birch tree. The birch shone white against a knot of glowering oaks behind it. The pole was dark, erect, sudden: the birch tree’s negative twin.


My neighbor planted the totem pole, I learned later. He is a famous artist and a good one. In his home are angels, demons, bears, roses, nudes, moons, birds, lovers. He is a whimsical and pragmatic man. “There are too many things to paint,” he tells me. “I stay up late painting and get up early to paint.” He paints in his home, having learned over the years that there he is most comfortable, most himself.


“At home I am me,” he says, smiling. “Away from home I am a famous artist.”


Another story, also about home: My brother Peter is a cabinetmaker, a wonderful one. He carves poems with his hands. Years ago he rebuilt a small, ancient cottage, turning it into a spacious and comfortable home. He did the work himself and cut no corners. Even the lintels are beautifully carved and carefully shaped to their particular niches.


In his home he and his wife and son welcome visitors of every stripe, shape and color—except one. There is a woman in Wyoming who may not enter his home. Once she was married to a dear friend of Peter’s. The man came home one night to find her in bed with another man. The couple divorced. The man now lives quietly with his ancient dog, who walks backward in the morning before he gets his bearings straight. His former wife lives in Wyoming with the other man.


The woman wants to visit Peter’s home. Live and learn, she says; forgive and forget. My brother’s wife agrees with this. She sees no point in dredging up the past. Life’s too short, she says, reasonably. What happened happened. It’s over now. We should all move on.


I forgive, says Peter, but I do not forget, and in my home there will be no breaking of promises, no cheating, no dishonesty. Therefore she may not enter this home. I wish her well, I hope she’s happy, but I do not want to see her within these walls.


My brother is not cruel or chauvinistic or insensitive. Quite the reverse: His sensitivity is enormous, and he feels things deeply. The pain of others cuts him to the soul. But he is also a man of firm belief, and one of those beliefs is the principle of honesty. Your word should mean something, he thinks, even if you regret having given it. I suspect that he regrets some of the promises he’s made, but I can’t remember a single time since we were crewcut boys when he’s lied or broken a promise.


Nor is Peter stupid. He knows the world lies. But he feels that his home is the one place where he can control dishonesty, forbid its intrusion.


A third story, my father’s: His family moved many times when he was a boy: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, New York. Since high school he has lived in New York; he brought up his family there and has lived in the same New York house with my mother for 35 years.


Yet when I once asked him where he felt at home, he said, “I have no home. I feel at home nowhere.” He didn’t say it melodramatically; it was simply a statement of fact from another honest man. He has no home. He likes the family house; it’s done well to hold the many lives hatched and grown within its walls. But to my father it’s a house. Not a home.


I listen to stories of home, sifting for their essence. Everyone has a story and each is different. I ask about home and people show me pictures of security, warmth, rootedness, peace, family. Sometimes they resurrect a time when they were loved. They talk of simmering onions and fresh-mown grass, of the bustle of brothers, of kitchens and attics and cousins, of neighbors shoveling walks unasked, of children hopping fences, small girls in wading pools, cookies and cocoa for the postman. A home is where a child buries a goldfish in the backyard, says one friend. No, says another, it is where you take refuge, it is where you take your shoes off and sigh in relief and have a favorite chair, molded to your shape.


On the night when the Persian Gulf war erupted, my wife, sobbing uncontrollably, told me she wanted to go home to Oregon. She hasn’t lived in Oregon for seven years. But that’s home: To her the memories are redolent of independence and dependence in the proper proportions. I strive to hear what she’s really saying when she says home. Using her hands, she tries to show me. I think what she holds in her hands is peace, which runs through her fingers like water in a place far from home.


Half a lifetime ago I left the home I grew up in. My parents still live there among their books and memories and the papery voices of the children who are gone. Since then, home for me has been fleeting. Once, it was an island where I came ashore after a long time at sea. Once it was a house where the sea licked the lawn and ducks slept on the porch.


Now, again, for a moment I know will pass, I am at home in the ancient house in which I live with my wife. We don’t own it. We don’t even rent it; we’re caretakers. But I feel at home here for reasons I grope to understand. The feeling has something to do with the stories told about the land on which the house stands, with the dense, brooding thicket of birches and brambles that rings it. Built in 1840, the house has held many people in its hands: a doctor, a judge, a historian, a schoolmaster, a poet. A hundred children have thundered through its endless hallways; a hundred cousins have curled up in its warm alcoves to read. A woman once died gently in the basement; a dog died gently in the woods. Near this spot one tree rises from the hulk of another.


I know the bright woods and thickets of the land, the crumbled ruin of stone walls marking lost boundaries. I know these homes: the finches, the pheasants, the starlings, the cardinals, the opossums. I know the age of one oak tree that lies in tatters down by the marsh: 108. I know where a crow once caught and peeled a squirrel, leaving his skin inside-out amid last year’s dry oak leaves.


I know the huge maple tree where the night herons live in late summer. Big-shouldered birds about two feet tall, they hunch silently in the swaying branches all day, hardly moving at all. At dusk they sail off into the nearby marsh, their huge wings opening like prayers, their hoarse cries harrowing the gathering darkness. They seem as big in flight as startled angels.


If home is in the knowing of the stories, I am home.


Brian Doyle, who passed away a year ago this week, was the author of several books, a prolific essayist, and the editor of the alumni magazine of the University of Portland.