About 200 miles south of Ann Arbor, off exit 50 on I-275, and after a series of left and right turns, sits an old Tudor-style house. Safely positioned at the end of a cul-de-sac, painted a soft brown with maroon shutters, it now sits empty, with only the remnants of what used to be a bustling home of a family of five—my family of five.
I grew up in a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio and experienced the quintessential suburban childhood. I attended a local public school, played endless games of capture the flag and wiffle ball in our tight-knit neighborhood, spent early mornings at Weller Park at soccer tournaments with the local community team, went to school dances, learned to drive and for the most part, had a childhood that was both normal and a privilege. I was consistently supported by my parents, Indian immigrants who had no idea what a quintessential American childhood entailed yet were somehow able to provide it for my brothers and me. Cincinnati is the place where my family of five spent the most time together, living under one roof, all together, something I eventually took for granted.
Halfway through my senior year, after my older brothers graduated and fled the nest to their respective colleges and jobs, my parents decided to leave: to leave the place we lived for 18 years. To leave the creaky house at the end of Ironwood Court, where memories were embedded into every crevice of a house; where I decided I was an undiscovered artist and drew flowers in sharpie on the wall of our yellow kitchen, the gaping door handle sized hole in my parents room created after I slammed the door so hard after one argument or another, the chewed out corners of our family room coffee table which our yellow lab Cooper designated as his preferred toy, our tri-level maroon deck where each of the Roy-Chaudhury kids had their graduation parties and my grandparents would sit and read for hours on end.
They decided to leave the creaky house, which for 17 years prevented any sneaking out in the middle of the night and always ensured that when one person woke up in the morning, everyone did. They left the dented mailbox at the foot of the driveway, which for more than 10 years doubled as a soccer goal post.
They decided to leave a house that saw parties of all shapes and sizes. Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and the usual “Indian dinner party” were all held in the creaky house on Ironwood Court. They decided to leave a house that saw moments of absolute and pure happiness, infectious laughter and the gatherings of friends and family, who provided the needed insulation to our life in Cincinnati. They left a house that at the same time saw moments of intense anger and sadness.
During the summer after my senior year of high school, my parents moved to Tucson, Arizona for my dad’s job. For the majority of my last semester in high school, I remember feeling almost nothing. No sense of sadness or loss in anticipation of my parents pending embarkment west. I was too caught up in the excitement of senior year and my own upcoming move to Ann Arbor. I naively believed their move would have no influence on me, because I was leaving too, and more, I assumed I was ready to leave.
Come August, while my parents went back and forth from Cincinnati to Tucson, moving some of our stuff and leaving others, the time finally came to pack up my own room. I said my goodbyes to friends, who like most people in Cincinnati, were more family than anything else. I spent the first 18 years of my life in one place, molded and shaped by those who surrounded me. My friends and family from Cincinnati had front row seats to my life; they were my biggest supporters and my most important critics.
We packed our car to the brim, with just enough room for me in the backseat, surrounded by everything I assumed I needed, not realizing just how much I was leaving behind.
I think we all understand how hard college can be, especially as a freshman. It’s the feeling of jumping off the high dive at the pool; exciting, nerve-wracking and the sense that you’ll never know if you keep your body straight enough to avoid a painful impact. My first months at school began with that same nervous excitement and unfolded into a skewed and twisted jump off the high dive.
Once I got to school, all I wanted to do was leave; to go back to the house on Ironwood Court, to the blue and yellow kitchen and the green couches. I wanted to walk in through the squeaky garage door and hear my brother watching TV, smell my mom’s chicken curry and the mumble of my dad on a conference call upstairs. I wanted us all to be back in the places we had been for almost 17 years. I wanted things and people to be where they were supposed to be, how they were.
The discomfort of being a freshman, thrown into an environment where I knew no one and relationships were made quickly and then ended just as fast, had me dreaming of Cincinnati. Although freshmen typically feel this sense of homesickness, mine was multiplied and rooted in a deep resistance to change. Ann Arbor was still unknown. Thoughtful and real relationships in my new home had not been formed yet, and Cincinnati was no longer home base for my family. Tucson, a small city nestled between the Catalina Mountains, was foreign to me, and for a while, every second spent there was a reminder of how much my life had changed.
In an attempt to feel some sort of grounding and stability to endure the awkward, lonely and also exciting moments of college, I clung to Cincinnati. I held on so tightly to something I felt was going to slip away. Every break initiated a fight between my parents on how many days would be allocated where, every relationship formed had me comparing it to the lifelong friends I had in Cincinnati, and the answer to “Where are you from?” was met with a rehearsed answer, when internally, I had no idea.
Yet, I soon realized I was holding myself back. As my grip around Cincinnati tightened, my ability to be present in Ann Arbor was lacking, if not nonexistent. Now, in the second semester of my junior year, I look back at that first semester and, like most of us, see a completely different person. The creaky house in Cincinnati wasn’t a home because of all the physical things—the countertops, the couches, the dented mailbox—it was a home because the four most important people in my life lived there. The friends who are now, and forever will be, family were only minutes away. The memories I so attributed to tangible things existed because of the people who created them. Holding on to Cincinnati prevented me from making those same memories in Ann Arbor and creating the relationships I was so lucky to have where I grew up and now, am fortunate enough to have again in college. The idea of home was once singular for me. It was that brown and maroon house at the end of a cul-de-sac. The yellow and blue kitchen, the sharpie adorned walls and dented mailbox.
Now, I am lucky enough to have three homes: Ann Arbor, Cincinnati and Tucson. And, all three of these places are virtually opposite in every aspect except one; each is home to people I love. And, in the end, isn’t that what a home actually is? Not where the laughs or fights took place, but who they were with. Not the yellow walls or the dining table, but the conversations and memories that formed around and within them.
As a junior, I realize that in a year or so I’ll be going through the same process, leaving a place which is embedded with memories, tangible landmarks of some of the most exciting and hard times in my life thus far. Yet, just as my home in Cincinnati was a home because of my family and friends, Ann Arbor is the same. After all, if I have learned anything over the past three years, it’s the people that matter most, not the place.