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?

Home is…

By Caitlin Kelly

The night-time view from one of the windows at my Dad's house...
The night-time view from one of the windows at my Dad’s house…

Where is it exactly?

Is it in the city or town where you grew up?

Your parents’ home?

Your rented apartment, maybe in a foreign country?

A college dorm room?

A house shared with room-mates?

Your current residence?

On a visit now back to Ontario, where I lived ages five to 30, it’s always a question for me, even though I left long ago for Montreal, (two years), then New Hampshire (1.5 years) and New York (20+ years now.)

We’ve been staying in my father’s house, reveling in all that luxurious space, a working fireplace, a spacious and private backyard and small-town charm only an hour’s drive from Toronto.

For some people, home is a place you can always retreat to, with parents, or one parent, always eager to see you and help you and set you back on your feet after a tough time, whether divorce or job loss, sometimes both.

For others, though, estrangement is the painful and isolating norm.

I left my father’s home when I was 19 and have never lived there since.

I left my mother’s care at 14 and have never lived there since.

Independence is a learned art, one I had to acquire early, as there was no physical and little emotional space for me in either place.

My father’s late wife didn’t like me much, so my stays on their sofa were pretty short; after 3 or 4 days, it was clear I had worn out my welcome.

My mother had a large house for only a few years, but then lived in a place that took me an entire day’s flying, bus and ferry to reach, so I didn’t enjoy much time there before she moved into a small one-bedroom apartment with no room for me at all; I stayed at a motel a block away. (Today she lives in a small nursing-home room, a sad and very costly end to a highly solitary life.)

So even when my first marriage ended quickly and badly, I had no “home” to rush back to. When I lost jobs and when I needed surgery, (four times within 10 years, all orthopedic), I had to call on local friends, even my church, to come and help me with meals.

So I really enjoy house-sitting while my Dad’s off traveling again, having plenty of time surrounded by the many familiar images and objects of my childhood and adolescence, the paintings and prints and sculptures I’ve been looking at my entire life. Many of them are images he’s created, paintings of his late, beloved dogs, of his late, beloved second wife and landscapes from Nova Scotia to Tunisia.

I find it deeply comforting to see them and touch them, even if they’re only inanimate objects. It’s my past.

They tell me I’m home again.

It’s also deeply comforting to even have this home to come to, as I haven’t seen or spoken to my mother in four years. (Long story, too tedious for here.)

Home is where I make it, now with my second husband, in a suburb of New York City. We talk about where we hope to retire, never sure whether we’ll return to Canada and/or live part-time in the U.S., France, Ireland…Not sure where home will be in the next few decades, if we’re fortunate enough to stay healthy and alive.

I moved to the U.S. filled with excitement and anticipation about my new life there; today, deeply weary of toxic politics, corporate greed and stagnant wages, I’m thinking more seriously about making a home elsewhere….yet Toronto, even in only two days this week, had shootings in downtown areas and not-nice houses sell, routinely, for $1 million, far, far beyond our means, even after a lifetime of hard work and saving and no kids.

Crazy.

How about you?

Where is home for you?

Where is home for you in the world?

By Caitlin Kelly

I’m writing this post from London, where I’m visiting for nine days, staying with Cadence, a fellow blogger who writes Small Dog Syndrome. She and her husband moved here a year ago and are settling into a city that — according to yesterday’s newspaper front page — is bursting at the seams.

I believe it!

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I just spent two weeks in Paris, another major city, but London feels really jammed to me. If one more person bumps into me with their body, backpack or suitcase, I may scream!

Cadence loves it here and hopes to stay here permanently.

She also spent much of her younger life — still in her late 20s — living all over the world in a military family: Belgium, England, Guam, Virginia, Germany.

It may well be that early exposure to the world through residence shapes us permanently for it; I was born in Vancouver, Canada; moved to London at two; to Toronto at five, to Montreal twice, to Mexico at 14, to Paris at 25, to New Hampshire at 30 and — finally! — to New York at 32.

I like having lived in five countries and speaking two foreign languages, French and Spanish. It makes me realize that every place has some kindness and welcome, but some are far better fits for me than others. I loathed rural New Hampshire, (no diversity, stuffy, no work available), and, much as I adore visiting Montreal, as a resident I hated its punishing taxes, long winter and high crime rate.

I like London, and have visited many times and lived here ages two to five. But I find its scale overwhelming and too often exhausting. I’m limiting my activities to one or two a day because of it…knowing I could do twice as much even in New York, where cabs are cheaper or Paris where Metro stops are a hell of a lot closer to one another — 548 metres apart on average.

I prefer Paris.

Which makes me wonder — what is it about a place, whether it’s a cabin in the woods, or a penthouse city apartment or a shared flat in a foreign country — that makes it feel (most) like home to us?

Maybe because I’m a journalist and my husband is a photographer and photo editor — or because we have fairly adventurous friends — we know many people, non-native, now living happily very far from where they were born or raised, in rural Austria, Shanghai, Eindhoven, Rome, South Africa, New Zealand, Paris, Plymouth, Cairo, Manhattan, Toronto, Rhode Island, Australia…

For me, Paris is the city I was welcomed at 25 into a prestigious, challenging and generous journalism fellowship that lasted eight months. So my memories of it are forever somewhat colored by nostalgia and gratitude for a life-changing experience and the warmth and love I felt during that time.

On my many visits back since then, though, I still feel the same way…more so than in New York (I moved to a NYC suburb in 1989).

More than Montreal, where I have lived twice, in my late 20s and when I was 12.

One of my favorite Toronto sights -- the ferry to the Islands
One of my favorite Toronto sights — the ferry to the Islands

More than Toronto, where I lived ages 5 to 30.

The place I feel at home is a combination of things: climate, the light, the way people speak and dress and behave, its political and economic and cultural values. It’s what things cost and how much of them I can actually afford.

It’s how quickly and easily I can navigate my way around by public transit, on foot, by car, by taxi, by bicycle.

It’s how much sunlight there is on a cold afternoon in February. How much humidity there is. How much it rains or snows — or doesn’t.

Basically, regardless of other circumstances, how happy are you when you wake up there every morning?

Even newly divorced, unemployed, lonely, I was glad to be living in New York.

The view from our NY balcony -- we have great river views
The view from our NY balcony — we have great river views

But also how much silence and natural beauty it also offers — parks and old trees and a river and lakes. (London beats Paris hollow on that score!)

History, and hopefully plenty of it, at least a few centuries’ worth, with buildings and streets filled with stories.

And yet…it needs to be open socially and professionally as well, which can be a tricky-to-crazy-frustrating combination if you arrive as an adult who didn’t attend the same schools, ages five through graduate school, as all your would-be new friends, colleagues and neighbors.

I moved to a suburb of New York City in June 1989, just in time for the first of three recessions in the ensuing 20 years. Not fun! I had to re-invent in every respect.

Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, Mexico where I lived at 14
Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, Mexico where I lived at 14

But choosing to live in Tarrytown, which I love, has been a great decision; the town is 25 miles north of Manhattan, which I can reach within 40 minutes by train or car. We have a terrific quality of life for a decent price.

(Here’s a blog post I wrote about 20 reasons why I love living there.)

I chose New York for a variety of reasons:

— My mother was born there, so I had some curiosity about it

— It’s the center of American journalism and publishing, my field

— It’s New York!

— Culture, history, energy, art, architecture…all the urban stuff I enjoy

Having said that, and all due respect to the many other places in the U.S. that people love, I wouldn’t move within the U.S. It’s too hard to establish yourself in New York and the only other city that appeals to me is L.A. which my husband vetoed.

If we move when we retire, which we’re discussing, we’re trying to choose between my native Canada, France, his home state of New Mexico…or, if at all possible, some combination of these.

Jose misses his mountains and a sense of Hispanic community.

But I miss speaking French and I miss my Canadian friends.

How about you?

What makes home home for you?