The year I turned three my father was diagnosed with ALS, and in the confusion that illness brings, the biannual move was forgotten. We spent the next couple of years traveling to see specialists around the country during breaks from school and my father’s academic job. For the benefit of us children these trips were disguised as family vacations, but though we never discussed it I think all of us knew that our time together was fleeting. Despite the fact that I was quite young at the time, the memories of these family trips are strong, particularly of the motels in which we stayed. Each time I would unpack my bags and carefully place my small clothes in a dresser drawer, no matter how short the stay. I wanted to make the motel room mine…ours. Keenly focused images of these places haunt my memory to this day.
The clearest memory I have is of the Tiki pool house—a popular theme in 1960’s decorating—at a motel we stayed at in Washington D.C. I particularly remember walking out of the main building with my mother and brother John. This excursion was very unusual as it was past my bedtime and my mother had never expressed an interest in swimming, but I was not going to question why and take the chance of breaking the spell. I skipped along, giddy with the anticipation and excitement of swimming at night for the first time. I watched my flip-flops slosh along the wet grass and stones, my thirsty stamped motel towel over my arm, the moon gleaming off of my sloppily painted peppermint-pink toenails. I was mesmerized by the steam that poured from the heated pool house into the cool night air, hovering along the ground giving the scene a graveyard feel. I ran ahead and pushed open the door to the pool house and the heat smacked me in the face reminding me of the annual feeling of stepping off the plane into the heat of my mother’s island. What my siblings and I didn’t know was that the next day, under the guise of a two-day business meeting, my father had the nerves from his left hand moved to his newly lifeless right hand so he could hold the chalk and continue to teach his classes in architectural graphics. After he returned (explaining the bandaged hand as an accident) we visited the Lincoln memorial and the White House and I had that anxious yet happy feeling one has on Christmas Eve. My brothers and sister were being nice to me (I suspect that as they were older they had a better idea of what was really going on) and I had my parents’ attention and affection. I could have lived at that Tiki hotel.
Eventually we moved on campus as Dad’s increasing immobility demanded a short commute. A few months after his death a good friend of his, a rabbi, was mugged and murdered two blocks from our apartment. Though my mother hated to move, particularly at a time when the care of children left at home and her full-time job didn’t allow her the luxury of grief, we moved back to the New Jersey town where I had spent the first five years of my life. It was not the same without Dad.
When I hit my twenties and moved out, “home” became wherever my mother was: Manhattan, Morrisville, Vermont. Whenever I went off to visit her I would tell my co-workers I was “going home” for the weekend, even though I had never lived in Vermont. Eventually I followed her and my siblings north. Now, fourteen years after her death though my husband and I own a house, we yearn for the perfect home in the country, acres of land, the only sound the wind in the trees. I yearn for a place to stay for a long, long time. I think that is why I took so strongly to my Puerto Rican roots and feel so comforted by the silhouette of a palm tree, the song of tree frogs, and the constancy of my mother’s family. For me the island represents a history my own childhood lacked, and a family center to visit now that my mother is gone. I yearn for fertile soil in which to sink my roots. To plant gardens, paint walls, and hang family portraits. To call somewhere “home.”
My eleven-year-old son is very attached to this not-so-perfect house on this tiny street, yet when we take vacations to visit family in Puerto Rico, Canada or Connecticut I’ve noticed that he really doesn’t care if we go home at all. As he sat sifting the sand with his father on the warm Luquillo beach he told me he wanted to stay there forever. Then we gather our things and return to the daily grind of life in Morrisville, Vermont and he loses the relaxed attention of his parents to jobs, laundry, a snowed-in walkway.
I’ve come to realize from watching him and with the settling of middle age that it isn’t “home” I yearn for as in a building, but rather the presence of family, unconditional love and the sense that things are taken care of. Someone else will keep you safe. Home is the feeling you have when you are a child sleeping in the back seat of the car while your parents talk softly in the front seat. Half-asleep, half-awake, you smile, feeling comforted and content. You pretend to sleep as your father lifts you from the car and as he carries you to the house. You are sad that the moment has to end, that after a gentle good night kiss you will be left, once again, in your dark bedroom alone. Perhaps I am misguided in my thinking that a lovely little country cape with lots of windows will fulfill my quest for home. Perhaps I should work on restoring the feeling I got in that D.C. motel with my family around me. Perhaps home is not permanent, but rather something fleeting. Like most precious things are.