Do you still talk of ‘going home’ when you return to the place that you were born and brought up? I certainly used that expression for all the years that my parents were alive and still living in the same house in Suffolk where I emerged into the world in a home birth on Christmas Day in 1947. I’d set up my own home since 1970 when I got married and yet the pull of that familiar place and the parents that I loved were still powerfully redolent of the idea of ‘home.’
I have just spent the past two weeks packing up a ‘second home’ in France.It’s been a difficult and challenging process because I have sold the house for lots of sensible, pragmatic reasons but I’m not really ready to let it go. I’m doing what, no doubt, many of you have already done when you’ve downsized and moved from your family home, so you’ll understand how emotional this process can be.
What is a home? Is it location or is it bricks and mortar? Is it more about the people who live there to imbue it with meaning or is it a feeling that’s only generated when you are far away from it? Or is it wrapped up in memories invested in certain objects which together create a sense of belonging and identity?
All of these thoughts have been swirling around my head as I have emptied cupboards, and drawers and gradually stripped away the accretion of twenty-four years of happy, happy memories. When I arrived in France two weeks ago this was my home, and now it is just a house, albeit a very pretty one, shorn of everything that made it identifiable as a place that I inhabited and to which I was proud to invite and entertain my friends and family. As the days have rolled by and I have tackled another corner or cupboard to discover all sorts of things that I’d forgotten that I had, the personality and character of my home have steadily drained away. I wonder if you have had that experience? It’s as though every single object is playing a distinctive note which ultimately harmonises with all the other notes into a symphony called ‘home.’
I’ve lived in eleven different locations since I was born. Not a great many compared to some, but a great deal compared, say, to my mother who left the home in Norfolk she’d lived in for eighteen years to marry my dad and then moved into a house that was our family home for the next fifty years of her life. During the twenty years that I was married we stayed the longest in a house in a lovely village in Hertfordshire. This was the closest that our daughters came to calling somewhere home as their young childhood was spent there, they went to the village school, all their friends lived close by and they could join things like the Brownies. It was a place with a strong sense of community centred around the school and the village hall. In many ways our family life there came close to the idea of what many think of as a quintessential country life. Not exactly The Archers, but not far off!
Looking back I think that in Little Gaddesden we came the closest to creating a proper family home and one in which I would happily have stayed for years to come. However it was not to be. My then-husband was made an offer at work which he felt unable to refuse. It was a significant promotion, a very considerable hike in salary and it required us to relocate to Stockholm in Sweden for the foreseeable future. Honestly, I was absolutely horrified. We had a good life, the children were happy and settled and I had just started a dream job which at 38 years of age felt like I’d finally found my raison d’etre. Of course I objected because the move had negative implications for us all, even my husband, but to no avail. We sold our home, rented an apartment in Stockholm, our eldest, Anna at twelve years of age went to boarding school in the UK and Suzy, at nine, moved with us to Sweden to attend the International School. I managed to keep my job by negotiating a deal whereby I would start offering management training courses to firms in Sweden whilst commuting back to the UK when I had courses to run for clients there. So my family was split apart and for two years I lived between two different countries, never feeling at home in either.
I think it was during this time that I came to understand the true meaning of ‘homesickness.’ I learnt the other day that the word ’nostalgia’ is derived from two Greek words meaning ‘home’ (nostos) and pain or ache (-algia). To say that I ached for home while I was in Sweden would be an understatement. I arrived into a bitterly cold snowy, grey January day with barely 4 hours of daylight. I missed Anna and the rest of our friends and family, especially my mother who was actually terminally ill, although I didn’t realise it at the time. To keep my job I had to cold-call companies, set up meetings and attempt to sell presentation skills training in English. Then, every four weeks or so, I’d fly back to the UK, stay with friends and try to keep my business going there. Stockholm could and would never feel like home and when my mother died in the March of our second year there, I felt as though the home of my childhood had also disappeared forever as that house would never be the same without my mum waiting eagerly at the door to welcome me back home.
The house in France I call home
Eventually something had to give. So much grief and unhappiness eventually led me to take control of my life and I left Stockholm and my marriage. I returned to the UK and bought a newly built apartment next door to the school at which both girls were now boarding. That flat was a mistake as it was a soulless affair with few redeeming features apart from its size and location. It would never feel like home for any of us, but at least I was in the same country and close to my two girls and I could get on with the rest of my life as a very much happier divorcee. I did my best to create places which Anna and Suzy could call home both before and after they went to university but only with limited success which was why the French house became so important to us all.
I bought it as a derelict property with a great view in 1997 and Anna and her boyfriend (now husband) helped me to move into it in 1999. Since then this has been the place that I’ve finally been able to give my family (daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren) everything that I think of as ‘home,’ Yes it’s bricks and mortar (or in this case stone). But it’s also about coming back to a beautiful place which is imbued with so many gloriously happy memories. They’ve invited their friends to stay here as I have, and it has become a wonderful and welcoming place where we have shared some truly glorious times. I have undoubtedly been at my very happiest whilst I have been here.
I am writing this in a nearly empty room surrounded by ghostly impressions. I can see my first grandchild Patrick on his visit at nine months of age, sitting on that rug over there and laughing as the tower he’s built from boxes topples over. I can see my granddaughter Freya running in that door at four years of age with her armbands on to tell me excitedly that she’s swum a width of the pool. And at the big table outside in the garden I can see all those people that I love so much eating and drinking and laughing in the warm French sunshine. All of which must constitute the essence of what the word ‘home’ truly means. I will return home shortly to Wimbledon. And yes, it’s a place I am happy to call home because it suits me perfectly and I really enjoy living there. So life moves inexorably forward to the next phase as it must. I know that I have made the right decision and maybe, anyway, home is not a place but a feeling and people and memories all of which I still have and and all of which I will cherish for the rest of my life.
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This blog made me cry. I've been searching all my life for a place I can trully call home. I am still searching. Lovely that you have those memories , grandchildren and a sense of being settled. Very Best Wishes to you x
I love reading your blogs! You have a real talent for writing about subjects that resonate. I am 61 next month and am lucky enough to still have both parents alive and self sufficient aged 85 years old! They bought the house they still live in in 1962. I was 2 so grew up there with my younger brother. It’s only 4 miles away from where I live now so can pop in for a cuppa and chat whenever I want to. Guess that will always be “home”.
I guess the closest thing to "home' is the house my father lived in after he sold our childhood homes. (We went back and forth from Ohio to Florida every year, switching schools in March. He hates snow.) After my mother died he settled in Florida in a house on Palma Sola bay. Even though it wasn't the house we grew up in, it was where we all gathered on alternative Thanksgiving and Christmas every year. As the years went by and our families grew, we still needed to be together on those holidays. Now he is gone, and the property is sold, so this Christmas we will start a new tradition of staying on Anna Maria Island. So, for us, I think that home is where the family gathers and creates memories. Carillon
I've only just had the time to sit and savour your piece regarding 'home'. I could feel exactly how you felt with each stage of your life. How wonderful is the written word.