On going home

Monday, November 26, 2018 - 7:44pm

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Illustration by Valerie Christou

Every semester starts with the same icebreaker: Where are you from, what year are you and what is your major? I always got tripped up by the first question.

I was born in Santiago de Chile but I left before my first birthday. I lived in in Pittsburgh for five years and by the time I was six I had already crossed into new state lines. I lived in Jonesboro, Ark., only to move a year later to Fayetteville, Ark., where I would live for 10 years. I have spent the last four years in Michigan and I expect to spend the next seven months in Germany. Home, as a physical place, has never been something I can pinpoint in my mind. I can’t tell you what home looks like, but I can tell you what it feels like.

Home has always been an idea — it is my mom’s arms, her soft cadences, the smells of lentils cooking and my dad’s voice. It is these images that constitute my home because I have always left a place never to return.

I moved to Michigan while in the process of inventing myself. So, in an attempt to affirm who I thought I was, I hastily closed my chapter in Arkansas. I left in a flurry of emotions, and while I promised others I would return, I vowed myself to never do so. My story in Arkansas was an anomaly I wanted to let go of.

Yet, I found myself one Thanksgiving Break in the Detroit Metropolitan Airport with a ticket to Tennesee in hand. I sat at the gate and there I did the math I had avoided doing — it had been five years since I had been in Jonesboro. As I boarded the plane, I didn’t feel like I was just flying back to the Natural State, it felt instead like I was going home.

I lived in Jonesboro, Ark., when I was six, and in this tiny town of 75,866 residents I found my best friend and a family. Sierra has flaming red hair that glimmers in the sun, and in one of those magical coincidences of the universe she became my friend. I don’t remember much about my time in Jonesboro, but I remember her. I spent most of my weekends at her house playing and eventually her parents became a part of my family. They easily adopted me. Their house is so ingrained in my memory that if I close my eyes I can walk through it remembering where the paint is chipped or the feel of the couch. This is what I was flying back to.

Janelle and Marcus, Sierra’s parents, picked me up from the airport — smiles adorned their faces, and in Janelle’s hands were two homemade chocolate muffins. These muffins were the flavor that greeted me every Saturday morning as Sierra and I ate breakfast. As I stood in the glimmering sunshine of the South, all the memories I had kept locked up began to overflow the banks of my mind.

I began to remember the Southern hospitality that had caught me off guard as I rushed around the airport hardly making eye contact and avoiding the five seconds it takes to say hello. I remembered the warm Southern air. I remembered the house and all its noises.

The first hours I noticed I had forgotten how quiet Jonesboro was. I woke up my first morning to a silence I couldn’t remember. In this silence I began to stitch back up a past I had ignored.

Walking through the house, I remembered spending the morning in the window room gazing out to the vast open yard covered in autumn leaves. I remembered the nooks and crannies that Sierra and I discovered as we played hide and seek. I remembered sitting under the piano while Marcus played. I remembered the dining room and how I had learned the word vegetarian there. I remembered sitting in Michigan thinking of Janelle’s chair empty when she told me she had been diagnosed with cancer.

On returning home I realized the immense hurt I had caused myself. Being back allowed me to reclaim this past but most importantly to embrace it as part of who I am. Maybe my time in Arkansas doesn’t make sense, maybe there were episodes in my childhood there I wished had never occurred, but by ignoring those I was also shutting out home.

I was erasing my childhood with Sierra. I was erasing Janelle and Marcus who have never stopped inviting me back. Their small family, of quirky English professors and my best friend, were the ones who encouraged me to keep reading and writing.

For me home is still the idea but it is now also that house on Church Street.