When I was seven or eight, I was about to do my first two-week camp session. Camp Su-Wi-Ma, a Campfire Girls’ camp, was familiar to me, originally from dropping off and picking up my sister there, and later through my own camp weeks. It was only 20 miles from home, on a nice little lake, and protected from open fields by a stand of oaks and maples. The thing about the two-week sessions, though, is that everyone went home Saturday when the first week closed, and returned on Sunday for the new week.
That gave me one night to become very homesick, and I woke up Sunday morning crying that I didn’t want to go back. My mother assured me, step by step, that once I got up and had some breakfast, then went outdoors, then thought about the friends at camp, then about the swimming and horses and archery…well, she was right. I got over it fast.
I still wake up homesick every now and then. But it’s complicated. I’m not at home and I’m not away from home. I haven’t had a house for a couple years. This sickness is not just wanting a house, or missing family and friends. It’s not nostalgia. It’s not some expat disassociation with the present. It could be that there’s no motherly voice encouraging me to get back on my feet, no siblings to understand a loss so deep you’re not even sure what it was or where it’s gone.
On a homesick morning, I wish to see my piano in the corner and have a few minutes alone to play something old and something new. I think of an old piece of furniture, the secretary my mother used. Scratched up here and there, the three lower drawers have hardware with ring pulls that drop and tinkle like no other sound. And the drop down desk is managed with a loose key that offers a faint clink. Ah, someone’s at the desk. Inside, cubbies and drawers hold the kind of things you’ll never move for a million years, because you’d never find them again. Mostly useful stuff like postage stamps and staples and stationery. And then some funny stuff like stickers that say, “Next week I’ve got to get organized.” They were probably a freebee with a New Yorker subscription. My grandfather’s eyeglasses remained there, along with my mother’s gray fountain pen. (She used brown ink, and forbade us from using the pen because it would ruin her years of breaking it in for a leftie. Still have it; never use it.) Some of those old brass, butterfly paper fasteners can’t be tossed. They’ll come in handy. Forty years after the collection date, I found a one-inch, perforated payment stub from the morning paperboy, a relic stuck in a crevasse. The secretary, I guess, was where the suicide note was written and left.
Wait, but that’s not the point, is it? I can still see familiar things at the homes of my children and extended family. I haven’t become a survivor and traveler by getting all wistful about stuff.
Now I see my father in the sun, with a certain look on his face – the look of aspiring to the transcendent appreciation of life he felt when he listened to certain music, or recalled a favorite passage – an appreciation he couldn’t evoke with a bottle of vodka, but a zest he saw in me, too.
My home goes with me, and so does homesickness: the loneliness and desire (and insecurity) of those of us left behind. Alone. Now I understand my parents were once the ones left behind. Alone as I never could imagine when I was their child, with them.
I’m looking for a familiar place – or many places – for my morning coffee, a place – or several – to regroup, a place – wherever I am – to receive friends, and someone to remind me my memory and homesickness is flawed. Don’t you remember? I’m looking for a place that offers echoes of my mother saying, ‘It’ll be OK once you’re there.’