When I was 13, my house was demolished to make way for a parking lot. My parents and I lived on a school campus, some of the few year-round residents of an international boarding program. But, when the school needed to expand, our corner, along with the dorm rooms that made up my eclectic childhood, had to go.
It wasn’t an easy decision, razing dorm rooms and a way of life, a long chapter in the history of our 100 year old school. After our head of school delivered the news in our kitchen, my mom did what my mom always does. She faced the future head on with her awe-inspiring mix of gumption, irreverence, and pizazz. Within seconds, she had put on Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” and I remember laugh-crying, as Joni and my mom harmonized on the line “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
Since then, our school has continued to change. The corners where I first rode a bike, practiced free-throws with my dad, or learned to swim, all have become something else entirely. My mom’s office is now perched 100 feet from our old kitchen. When I visit her, I park in my old bedroom.
I’ve long believed that places become homes by the moments that happen there. Places merely have coordinates and faces; homes have memories. My home had meaning not because of the walls that made it not-a-parking-lot but because of the rowdy noises that come with living in the boys’ section of a boarding school, of the smell of cup-of-noodles during Saturday sleepovers, or fried rice mornings in the school kitchen on Sundays. The dorm staff were my babysitters, the teachers my aunts and uncles, the boarders my siblings. My mom’s defiantly jubilant Joni Mitchell serenade was a reminder that no bulldozer could take down the home we had built during those 13 years.
15 years after they paved paradise and put up a parking lot, my school community is still central to who I am and how I navigate this world. I met some of my best friends in kindergarten, two dorm parents were my honorary family at my college graduation, and a dozen fellow teachers organized a food delivery for my parents and me during my dad’s hospice. Hell, I met my partner in middle school (he would like to assure everyone we did not start dating at age 12). Each of those people is a piece of me, and in turn, a piece of my home.
In the years since we moved off campus, I’ve continued to build that house. I met my platonic soul-mate in college and slowly collected grown-up friends. When I started my most recent job, I knew I had found my people. My home grew.
When I planned this trip, I wondered how much I’d feel pangs of homesickness. Though my home did not have coordinates, it had stories that were indelibly linked to the terrain where they happened. The Bay Area had long held the stories of my belonging — the smells of my favorite coffee shop, the backroads that lead to my friends’ childhood homes, the faint sounds of highway 280 around the perimeter of my school. But it also held something else.
I never envisioned returning to the Bay Area after college. For what would be his last birthday present to me, my dad painted a wine glass, at its stem the words “NYC 2010.” I had dreams of a future spent in a Manhattan archive, losing myself in the newspapers of the 1840s and historical salons. But as he faded away that year, it was clear that dream would too. The Bay Area was where I should be.
And, just like most things we don’t realize at the time, it was precisely where I needed to be as well. But staying also meant that some of my fondest childhood memories — the moments that wove together to form the fabric of home — were now layered with new associations. My favorite coffeeshop became the site of one of my dad’s bad falls. A week before he died, we went to a James Taylor concert in the same place I graduated high school. 3 years prior, my dad had handed me my diploma. Now, we sat in the audience, he in his wheelchair, my mom and I holding back tears. A month later, our school, the place I grew up, hosted his memorial.
In the years that followed, I crafted new memories in those places. I wanted the land to recall the good, the ugly, the full range of feeling that had happened there. When I left, whenever that might be, I wanted to be able to return to a land that did not just recall loss. I wanted to recall beginnings, too.
By the time I did leave, I had etched new memories into the places of my childhood. My mom and I attended a joyful yearly scholarship celebration, in my dad’s name, in the same school building as his service. We curled up on the couch, eating candy and drinking wine, in the same spot his hospice bed once stood. I moved to San Francisco, then to Berkeley. I wore an old boarding school shirt to bed, lined my bookshelves with my dad’s old history books, and hung photos of childhood friends on my apartment walls. I hosted Galentine’s Day parties, watched two of my dearest friends get married, adopted a cat. The new and the old Bay Area coexisted to create a home — a home finally strong enough to walk away from.
I write this on day 63 of this journey. I do, on occasion, feel homesick. And it is one of the most welcome, wondrous feelings. It means my home has shape. It is not a vacuum of loss. It is not a razed parking lot or scattered ashes. It is something I built and rebuilt. It has texture, story. It fills me to the brim, even from thousands of miles away.
In 17 days, I’ll be back in California. The European leg of my adventure will come to a close — for now. A few days after that, I’ll be on the open road again, driving across North America for 3 months. While I’m home, I will watch my childhood best friend get married. I will be reminded of her dad and my dad, men we miss dearly. I will make new memories amidst my oldest friends. I will sit in my mom’s backyard with wine and tacos (mom, consider this my wine + taco request). I will likely hate saying goodbyes yet again. I will experience the full range of feeling that my home recalls. But at least I can take solace that my homesickness is an ache that soothes me. It reminds me again and again that there is and always will be a home to return to.