That old going home thing

That old simple life trick again

Court noted on his blog some Nebraska transplant waxing nostalgic about that old simple life on the prairie, and then in one of the comments Court explained his own return (from Thailand??) to the simple life on the prairie by saying he was just following out the oldest story of all:  going home. That has me thinking of a number of related ideas, including the notion of home, and what, if anything, that has to do with the place where I happened to have been born and raised, at least for the first seventeen years of my now much longer life.

Home. Would one mean a house? A place? The place one was born? The place where one lived the longest? Where you hang your hat? Germans have a word: heimat. It sort of means home, but more accurately reflects the idea of belonging, the place where one belongs. Is that it? When I am asked where my home is, the stock answer: Where my stuff is. I have read people describing home as where their family is, or where their children live, but that seems difficult, since more often than not in modern times, it is rare to find much of one’s family in one place. My two daughters live a thousand miles apart, and both many more thousands of miles from me. Which one represents my home? Or do I have two plus homes? Three homes, if I may count the place where I live with my wife. So is home the place(s) one belongs?

What, then, does “going home” actually mean?

I’m asking the question; I have no answer. Except that for me it’s where my stuff is.

But as long as we’re on the subject, I am also considering for a moment the place where I was born  and lived for seventeen years, the first seventeen years of my life, and still forty-eight years beyond those years, it is the longest time I have lived in any one place.

It is in this house in a little town stuck way down in the bottom lefthand corner of Arkansas I spent those seventeen years, from 1945 to 1962.

The Donko house

This picture was shot through the windshield of a rental car in October, 2008. It’s the brick house. The street in front is East North Street. There are very few changes since I spent my dubious youth in it. The bay window to the left was the dining room, the bay window to the right was my younger sister’s bedroom, and the window in the middle was the living room. Behind the dining room was a breakfast room, and we ate every meal in there except Thanksgiving and Christmas, when we at in the dining room. Next to the breakfast room was a long kitchen with a double sink at the far end below windows overlooking a carport and the garage with an apartment above it — that garage is now gone. At that double sink my mother rammed her finger down my throat one Sunday evening when I was fourteen years old to make me gag the tin of aspirin I had downed with a large Coke because I thought it would get me high; she found this out because the loudmouth pal who had with me also downed a tin of aspirin (with a 7-Up, in his case), when he felt sick confessed to his mother who called my mother. That is the only memory I have of standing next to that sink — we had a maid and cook. A long hallway lead from the kitchen back to a den, my parents’ bedroom, and my bedroom, which began as a screened in porch walled in to make a bedroom about the width and length of a shoe box for me. A grate toward one end of the hallway provided a vent for heating, and the grate got very hot, one had to remember to walk around it; once my sister fell, stumbled, or probably I pushed her, onto the grate and she got a waffle iron shaped burn on her knee; the scar remained a long time and may still be there.

There used to be a drainage ditch running along the left side of the house, in that grassy area beneath the large trees, which were much smaller in my day. I played in the ditch with plastic army men, and when it had a good deal of water in it, I could catch a few crawdads. Children were meant to get dirty, eat bugs, fall from things, get cuts and bruises, and play hard. I see no evidence my parents worried I might drown in that ditch. The M family lived in a little shotgun house that is gone; it stood behind that concrete slab on the left. JM and his sister BM were childhood playmates and BM offered the first really serious erotic kiss I received. The backyard was the size of a football field and dotted with pine and pecan trees.

This house is in the county seat town of Magnolia. I have written this about it:

After all, Magnolia was just another of those junk-cluttered, ramshackle, unconsciously ugly, roadside hamlets lost deep within the evergreen forests like atolls in a great green sea, islands in the pines, one of those curious, mysterious southern towns that appear and disappear around curves in washboard roads like dead skunks in ditches.  I was as alone on that island as Robinson Crusoe.

Would this be the home to which I would return if I am to follow the oldest story and go home?

Frankly, I prefer Buenos Aires (or Berlin, or Vienna, or San Diego), or the world city where I come closest to feeling a sense of heimat: Bratislava,


4 replies »

  1. Goodness, I was too clever for my own good by half on that post, I see. Let me just say that I didn’t return home for the “simple life”, whatever that means; if anything, my life has become immeasurably more complicated now that I have to actually deal with its minutiae on a daily basis. One of the true pleasures of the expat life is how one stands on a peak, as it were, observing the life around you without truly partaking of it. (I am stealing this from Donald Richie, who wrote some insightful things about the expat life in Japan). Here I am immersed in a thousand details I could safely ignore across the pond. Just a feature of life that is what it is.

    Anyway, that’s not what I mean about going home, seeking the simple life.

    I cannot dismiss the ground where I’m from as you are able to do, Donko. Its hard dust is in my blood and will be always. It’s all I’ve ever really written about, even when I thought I wasn’t. I have obsessed over this ground from 6000 miles away and for years. I can’t explain why. This land does not give me peace, or happiness, or the simple life. It’s just home.

    Maybe if I were a businessman or lawyer or what have you, and set out to have a responsible career much earlier in life, I’d have more on my mind to be concerned about than this, and would have lost all sense of home in the sawing tide of the years. Who knows.

    I don’t think many Americans share this obsessive sense of home with me. We are, after all, the country eternally on the move. I think in large measure I learned to appreciate my own home by going so far away for so long, and also by seeing how the rural folks of the two Asian countries where I lived had a connection to their homes so deep that it defined their whole identities – and how miserable they were when they abandoned that heritage, however humble, for the glitz of Bangkok and Pattaya and Tokyo and Osaka and Kobe.

    I admire those expats I know, like you Donko, who can live constantly and perenially on the edge of experience, settling (lightly) into new scenes every few years. For a while there I fancied myself one of you. But somewhere on the line I realized I was not, and there came visions of stark bluffs rising from the sandhills … and so here I sit.

  2. This subject interests me. I think there is some impact, known and unknown, and even maybe unknowable, from our places, and possibly, or maybe even especially, that “formative” place, the place we are standing as our brains are being wired. I am curious to find out what other readers here think about this.

    I have not disguised my own process of sinking deeper and deeper into the pond of nostalgia, or is it a swamp? I do it all the time. Often I have this dream, or fantasy, a desire to stop all this vagabonding and get a bungalow in a nice town, put my stuff up permanently, collect more books, make friends with neighbors, and have a howdy acquaintance with lots of folks, get teased by the usual waitress at the diner, and know people will visit me in the hospital. Yet, every time I’ve come close to that life, I was bored out of my mind in less than a year and desperate to find out what life is like in some other place, especially a different some other place.

    I wonder often how my life would have turned out had I taken a job teaching creative writing for a university back almost a quarter century ago? Would I have had that bungalow, a teacher’s house, and spent my life in that world? Would I have treasured those years as they approached an end?

    I think the answer is, I would have done it if I really wanted to.

    I have no idea why I did not bond with my home town and the people I grew up surrounded by. Most did. Most of my high school friends, the ones alive, never left. Some of those who did leave did not get very far away — their idea of going to the big city was Dallas or Little Rock, some place where they could still easily get “home.”

    But what I’m thinking about now is how this colors what and how I write.

  3. I like this one. I still remember (thought probably in a jumbled way) the stories you told me (long ago in SD)about your youth.