It’s a running joke in the McMullin family: as soon as two or more McMullins get together, the conversation will inevitably turn to the topic of roads. They all have an uncanny sense of direction. My brother-in-law can navigate you home from a dirt road in Iowa, giving you both the shortest and most direct routes home, like your very own personal GPS. The McMullins don’t get together too often, but when they do, their conversations usually go something like this:
“Did you drive up 22 today,” my brother-in-law will ask.
“No, I ended up taking the Turnpike, because of the construction on 22,” explains my hubby.
“Oh yeah, that was a good idea. Or, you could have taken the old Barree Road to 305 and come up that way.”
“Right where so-and-so lived on that big farm on the right?”
“Yes, that one. Remember that time we took that road that runs by the river and we ended up by Route 11 east of the gas station where we always stop?”
“Yes, that’s where such-and-such used to live before she moved. Just south of her house is a dirt road with two pine trees. If you take that, it will spit you right out on Route 30.”
“Yeah, I will try that the next time we are up there.”
Because I am not a “real” McMullin, at this point in the conversation I usually tune out, bored and somewhat annoyed. First of all, I don’t know any of the places or so-and-so’s they are talking about. And who cares about where some god-forsaken dirt road in the middle of Pennsylvania leads?
But lately I found myself feeling slightly jealous during these discussions. When my husband and his siblings gather around their mother’s dinner table and talk roads and about who lived where, they seem so rooted and secure, so certain of their place in the world – even if it is a small valley in central Pennsylvania. I envy their sense of place, their certainty of where they came from, where they are, where they are headed, and how to get there.
In MY family, the running joke is this: There’s no place like home, except when you are on your way there. Midway, on an airplane, suspended above the earth, quite uncertain of where you are at any moment. No roadmaps here, no dirt roads, no memories of who used to live where. That’s where our home is.
I am not sure when this became our truth, but most probably it happened a long time ago when we lived in China for two years. It was a short stint of living abroad, yet the experience somehow lodged itself in all of us. We became restless, seeking, searching, never satisfied with where we are – in location, in status, in jobs, in relationships. This was kind of our family quirk for a long time, something to joke about and hold up as a badge of honor. “Look at us, we are so cool! We are at home anywhere in the world!” So when I left home for real at 18 I didn’t know – and quite frankly didn’t care — that I will never have the certainty of roads in my life. That every place will feel foreign from then on – the street where I grew up in Budapest as much as the coast of Maine, or the backwoods of Pennsylvania.
I didn’t understand that this uncertainty will propel me to always look for new places, to not feel satisfied with where I settled and that I will also be unable to return to the home I remember. Because once you get a taste of what life could be – for better or worse – you never stop wondering about whether you are in the right place, where you should be, or if there is something shiner or grimier, but more exciting waiting for you around the corner. Your “home” becomes a place where you are just waiting for the next thing to happen to you, where you are working up the courage to make it happen. Your home is no longer a quiet place to stay – it’s a place you are supposed to leave behind.
I’d like to think that this means that I am a citizen of the world or something glamorous like that. But the truth is that it just makes me homeless. I am not jet setting around the world – I am raising a child, going to work, buying groceries, getting through the day. I am trying to create a home where I am not sure one can exist. But I try anyway, out of thin air, out of scraps and fragments and shiny, slippery thread.
I sometimes wonder if I’d feel the same way if I hadn’t left home. Would I feel as secure and rooted as the McMullins? Or is it my nature – my family’s nature – that got us into this predicament? But that’s the thing about leaving – you can’t undo it and pretend you never left.
Some evenings I fire up Google Earth on my laptop and zoom in on my street in Budapest, where I was born. In the street view image the gate to our apartment building is half open. There’s a woman walking her dog and the lights in the beauty salon next door seem to be on. The leaves on the chestnut trees are brown and shriveled and it looks like someone just washed off the sidewalk with a bucket of water.
It all looks familiar. I feel a dull ache in the pit of my stomach for that home just beyond the darkness of the gate. I know it’s not the way I left it, or the way I remember it, and that it really isn’t mine anymore. My home is on another street somewhere, some place yet to be discovered, yet to be created.