What makes “home” truly home?

An earlier version of Jose’s desk

By Caitlin Kelly

Some people live their entire childhoods in one home, maybe in a house, maybe an apartment, maybe a trailer. But it’s home. There’s no doubt.

They feel safe, welcome, happy and well-nurtured there. They can’t wait to get home and miss it terribly when they are away.

For others, it can be a place to flee, for a while or forever.

Here’s an astonishing essay about home and house keys from a writer who — oddly — recently moved into the same small coastal British Columbia town my mother lived in for many years.

It brought up so many feelings for me.

Like this passage:

I first visited my father’s house when I was sixteen; we’d not shared an address for fifteen years. A few months later, I moved in, having nowhere else to go.

I used the keys like a tenant on a month-to-month lease—non-committal, curfew-blind—as did everyone else there: my father; his second wife; his stepson; the woman from church his wife invited to stay; the woman from Mexico his wife brought back to stay.

The whole crew pushed off eventually. My father sold the place and took an apartment next door to his office. I slept in his RV for a December and a January, then left for a commune six-and-a-half thousand miles away.

It was already my observation that you can peg the quality and tenor of your in-house relationships by how you feel when you’re steps from the door, key in hand, about to let yourself in. Are you braced for a hurricane? Ready for the dull emptiness of dead air? Smiling before your foot crosses the threshold? Quiet like a mouse?

My parents split up when I was seven, and sold the large house we lived in in one of Toronto’s best neighborhoods, on a quiet street where I played with the neighboring kids. My mother and I moved into a two-bedroom apartment downtown and I went off to boarding school.

But at 14.5, I also plummeted, with almost no notice, into my father’s home, shared with his live-in girlfriend, only 13 years older — a 28-year-old poorly suited to nurturing a troubled teen. It was often challenging for all of us.

They sold the house we later lived in when I was in my second year at University of Toronto, giving me a month’s notice to move out and find a place to live at 19.

I found a ground-floor studio apartment, at the back of an alley in a not-great downtown neighborhood — the sort of place a more attentive parent would have immediately ruled out. But he didn’t.

I was attacked there, so I only lived there for about eight months, glad to flee.

Between 1982 and 1989, I changed my place of residence a lot: Toronto-Paris-Toronto-Montreal-New Hampshire-New York. That included two apartments in Toronto, a student dorm in Paris, a gorgeous two-bedroom apartment in Montreal, a farmhouse in New Hampshire and then, finally, a one-bedroom, top-floor apartment I bought, thankful to never deal with another landlord or rent increase or cracked window or drafty kitchen, in suburban New York.

I haven’t budged since.

I love this moment when the rising sun hits the windows across the river!

In this apartment, with a stunning view northwest up the Hudson River, I’ve been through plenty: a marriage, divorce, being victimized by a con man; two knee surgeries, a shoulder surgery, hip replacement, early stage breast cancer. Three recessions. Jobs won, jobs lost. Friendships gained, friendships that withered.

A happy second marriage, now almost 21 years!

Bu throughout all of this, it’s been a good home.

I love our street — atop the highest hill in our county. Across the street is a low-slung townhouse development (so never a blocked view) and downhill another two-story apartment complex. Our street is winding and quiet, with old growth trees and stone walls. At the bottom are dozens of raspberry bushes — and yet (!) we can also easily see the towers of downtown Manhattan, 25 miles south.

So, yes, it’s the suburbs, and yes it’s pretty damn boring. But also quiet, clean and beautiful. Our town is so attractive it’s often used for film and television locations. It’s diverse in age, ethnicity and income, unlike many others nearby.

Our town reservoir

So, for me, home isn’t just the physical structure where I sleep and eat and work, but a larger vibe where I and my husband, who is Hispanic and a winner of a team Pulitzer for The New York Times, feel welcome.

I keep trying to envision our next home — whether a second home or selling this and leaving — but haven’t seen anything yet (affordable for us) that makes my little heart sing.

I have always longed to live in a private house again, with a fireplace and a verandah and a bit of land and privacy, although I am also very wary of the costs of renovation and surprise/expensive maintenance. The one downside of living in our 100-apartment building is having neighbors who keep opposing its very badly needed renovations — which could easily boost our apartment’s market value by 50 percent.

Tell me about your home — the residence, your town or city or region.

Do you love it?

Or long to flee?

And go where?

16 thoughts on “What makes “home” truly home?

  1. I like my home. It’s been mine for almost five years. This is the place where I became truly independent, made major accomplishments in my career, and learned some of the thrills of having my own home, even if I paid rent for it.
    That being said, I am planning on moving into a bigger space at the end of my lease. Not sure where yet, but likely a bigger space where I can get a cat or two. Hopefully, it’ll feel as much as home as this apartment has been for me.

  2. Your post had me reflecting on the many homes we have bought and renovated while we lived in them. Our last home, the one we live in, is our little paradise in southern California. We bought it for the many fruit trees and room outdoors for gardening and entertaining. We built a large pool to attract our six grandchildren to visit more often. The pandemic has interrupted family gatherings (my wife’s brother and my Tia passed away from Covid last week) but our home has also allowed us more time to reflect, read, and get much needed exercise in the garden. A gift not shared by the many Angelinos suffering the new strain!

  3. your home, and its setting are lovely – I live in a bohemian neighborhood, not the manicured one I moved from, love the location, a short walk to town, a very short walk to the park, and it is small and painted in soft colors, filled with only my very favorite things.

    1. Sounds great!

      Our town is mixed — some projects (immaculate), some million $ condos on the river, big old Victorian homes, 50s and 60s shoeboxes with tiny plot of land. And a lot of co-op, condo and rentals. I like that it’s so mixed.

  4. Jan Jasper

    Caitlin, I really enjoyed your nutshell biography told through the lens of the interesting places you’ve lived. Your current home sounds like it has many plusses; one of them, I’d say, is being on the top floor. (When I was an apartment dweller, I had so many sleepless nights due to upstairs neighbors clopping around in the middle of the night – it was miserable.) And you have lovely views!
    I’m now in a Victorian house that my late husband and I bought over a decade ago, in central New Jersey, when we decided to leave NYC. My town has lots of historic homes, and lots of friendly and progressive people, but I miss the energy of NY, where I lived for quite a few years. But I couldn’t move back – I could no longer cope with the noise and crowding and teeny tiny apartments of NYC.
    A couple decades ago, I took a hiatus and returned to my home town – beautiful, bookstore-filled Ann Arbor Michigan, I stayed for 4 years. During that time I learned a lot about my relationship with my mother, who still lived there. We had always been close and remained so until her death a few years ago. Even though I still have a cousin, and old friend in the area – and Ann Arbor is a wonderful place – I really doubt I’ll ever go back, even to visit. I just miss my mother too much.
    During the time I’ve lived in my current house, my husband died some years ago, then my mother died. More recently, a wonderful relationship that I expected to last the rest of my life ended. A friend (not one who knows me well) expressed surprise that I haven’t moved out of this house, with all the memories it holds. I love this house, and not just for its features (It’s a Victorian with stained glass windows, 2 fireplaces – one of which works! – and a flower garden). It’s filled with memories of tasks the men I’ve loved helped me do to care for the house – bittersweet memories. And my mother’s visits… And mom’s wise advice on dealing with contractors, which she’d had a lot of experience with.
    I love that photo of Jose’s desk area. I love the light. The wall color is very similar to my bedroom. Is that Farrow & Ball?

    1. Thanks!

      Interesting you know Ann Arbor — as beth (loyal commenter here) lives there!

      Your house sounds great!

      My 91 year father is about to sell his latest house (he is still flipping houses for income) and…go live on a boat in Greece.

      So I wonder when, where or if I will ever live in a house.

  5. I will be retiring in 17 months, so I will be saying good-bye to the north. We own our condo in Penticton but will be putting it on the market this spring (I hope). We are looking for the right property (actually, we found one that we think might be the one, but with all the lockdowns and no-travel orders, it may be gone before we can do anything about it). I’ll be glad when this miserable virus is under control. I’ll be getting my vaccine at the end of this week, but I’ll be happy when the vaccinated numbers really start to climb.

    1. It must feel so good to see the end of work in sight! I wish!

      I was lucky enough to get a windfall from my late mother — 10000% unexpected — and have been looking at houses in France. So who knows? I have basically given up on Ontario and NS, too $$$$$ and still thinking about Quebec. Maybe we’ll rent an apartment in Montreal when it’s safely possible.

      1. $$$$ in NS? Wow, although I have heard through a real estate friend that properties have been flying off the shelves, so to speak, and population in larger cities is dropping (price, virus worries). Covid has had some unexpected consequences.

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