The Place We Call Home
I just wanted to write a love story.
As an incurable romantic, I’ve always had a soft spot for those stories that are as warm and gooey as the center of a molten chocolate cake. My lifelong favorite, over even Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, is the story of Anne of Green Gables’ Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe. So that’s what was foremost in my mind when I started working on The One That Got Away. But what I soon began to realize, as the book developed, is that it’s equally a story about home.
Home is one of those simple ideas that gets more complicated the harder you think about it. On one hand, it’s such a universal concept that, in its broadest terms, it ought to mean the same thing to everyone—a place of shelter, safety, belonging. Just the phrase “keep the home fires burning” conjures a place we can return to after wandering, where someone we love will be waiting . . . a place that will always be there. But, unthinkable as it is to ourselves as children, what happens to all of us is that our definition of home changes over time. And sometimes it changes more than once. The thing is, though, that each of our homes, and the people who share them with us, shape us in ways it takes years to fully understand.
Most of us begin with the same kind of home: Where we come from. Where we grew up. Our oldest, most fundamental place; the place we really began. It may not have been happy, but it’s still our origin, and for better or worse, we can’t forget it, or carve away the imprint it left upon us.
For me, this home was the ten acres in the Blue Ridge foothills where my parents built their dream house. Before then, we had been living among clinking sailboat masts and dapper white-clad midshipmen in Annapolis, Maryland, and my six-year-old self utterly failed to see what had so enchanted my mom and dad with this steep and unruly hillside in the boondocks. By the time construction was completed, though, I was as bewitched as they were. And partly because the house had been designed according to my parents’ specifications, I was always aware of the way my physical environment reflected who our family was. One big bathroom for the three of us to share, but separate his-and-hers art studios for them. The spacious open-plan living/dining room, because my parents disliked the tradition of separate “formal” rooms that sat mostly unused. The immense windows along the western façade, so we were seldom out of sight of the rippling blue silhouette of the mountain range that formed our horizon, thirty miles away.
My mother took her last breath in that house. Her blinds were often open as she lay in her bed; I can only hope the beauty of the mountains eased her pain. She had bright eyes and a joyful smile, and the kind of laugh that could make friends from all the way across a room. Her warmth drew people to her like a hearth fire in January. Since I was only thirteen when she died, we were robbed of the time for me to grow to appreciate her, not just as my mom, but as the vivid, kind, charming woman I now know she was. But in the time we did have, her love taught me to value myself, and to treasure beauty, and those two things have been at the core of every good decision I’ve ever made.
My second home, I wasn’t looking for. While I was studying in England during my junior year of college, everything my father had been struggling with at home collapsed. When my winter break came, I had no home to go to. My mother’s older sister, without question or hesitation, said, “You come here.” And her house has been my go-home-to place ever since. Because of the woman whose house it is, that place represents as big a part of me as where I came from. My aunt opened both home and heart to me, and her dead sister’s girl became her third daughter. With remarkable patience and more than a little tough love, she knocked a navel-gazer, overly prone to whining and stewing, into a decisive and determined adult. I owe more than I can ever convey to my exposure to her challenging, sparky intelligence.
If you’re lucky, your own go-home-to place, the place you head for holidays and family weekends or just to take a break from being an adult for a couple of days, is still the same as where you come from. But for many people it’s not. Parents move, divorce, die, betray. Your go-home-to place may not even be where your parents or siblings are, but it’s a place that brings you comfort when you arrive there. It’s the place where you know all the stories and inside jokes that get retold, and where somebody will have your favorite meal waiting for you when you arrive.
Of course, like most of you, I also have my own home now. Mine is a sunny little aerie in Brooklyn, and I share it with my husband, whose dimples are the only thing that can coax me out of bed in the morning, and our cat, who travels from sunbeam to sunbeam as each day glides by. I made it partly with pieces of my other homes: artwork my mother painted, books my aunt has given me, furniture my grandmother bought in the fifties, which is beautifully scuffed with age and with my family’s use. But also, my home is made with pieces of who I am now. Artwork I drew, books my friends have written. Because I lost my mother’s gardens, I cram my windowsills with flowers, and because my husband loves to cook, I grow herbs to use in our meals. This is the place where I welcome friends and family, both my own and my husband’s. And every single inch of it is made of something I love.
Throughout The One That Got Away, Sarina is on a journey to find her home. The home she comes from is too laden with painful memories to be a welcoming place any longer, so she’s left Virginia behind and made a life for herself in Austin. She’s spent much of her adult life trying to find the right go-home-to place, where she truly belongs, and to build her own home at the same time. When the story opens, she believes Noah is the answer to both of those. Except, as Eamon points out, she’s never taken any steps to make her home with Noah a reality; she only thinks it’s her future because it looks like it should be. So what she has to find the courage to do, in spite of the risks, is to open herself up to the person she’s come to realize is the one who really belongs in that future, and in that home.
This is why the home you build yourself, in many ways, is the most rewarding one of all. You can fill it, and populate it, with whatever and whoever you wish. It can be whatever you want it to be, whether it’s the place you share with your partner, or your partner plus the colorful chaos of children (or the furry and malodorous chaos of pets), or just the solitary peace of your sofa, a good book and a big glass of wine. This home is the one you fill with your own family, whoever you choose them to be—but the peace is in the choosing.