There was a big pond behind the third house of my childhood. The first night we moved in, all five of us ran down to it — my two brothers, mom, dad and me — and we slipped, slid and pushed each other across the ice. Snow was coming down from the sky in big chunks. (It was one of those typical winter nights, I’d later learn, that poised you well for a snow day the next day). We ran up from the pond after our new neighbor kindly asked us to quiet down and ripped off our sweatshirts and jeans — none of us had bought winter coats yet. Later that night, we all piled into the car and went to a store called Meijer that we’d never heard of before, picked out our own frozen meals and ate them in foldable chairs with disposable forks before falling asleep on air mattresses in empty rooms.
A new childhood was dawning — just like the two previous childhoods had. I’d spent the first eight years of life catching tadpoles and prancing around bayous in Houston and the next four finding ways to entertain myself in 110-degree Julys in Dallas, but moving to Grand Rapids, Michigan at age 12 was something distinctly foreign. The oceans, humidity, prairies, indefatigable heat and roaming steer of my early memories didn’t translate to the fenceless, green, fresh-watered, snow-covered rolling hills of West Michigan.
I had to change my words, too: I quickly learned to say “you guys” instead of “y’all”; “pop” instead of “soda”; to put the emphasis on “sur” in “insurance” instead of on “in.” There are twangs my friends still tease me for which I never could quite kick, like how I pronounce “museum” or how I intonate “Grand Haven.” Certain words, pronunciations and phrases still walk out of my mouth like little skeletons from the South who refuse to be fully laid to rest.
This past December, I returned to Grand Rapids for a few days. I’ve gone each New Year’s Day since I left for college, which was around the same time my parents moved away again, this time to the West Coast. The first two years I returned to visit satisfied the 12 months’ worth of nostalgia for the place I came into adolescence — they satisfied my desire to return to the place I still considered home, even though my family had left. Even in December, my friends and I would drive to our old haunts, sometimes just to sit: Frosty Boy for the lemon soft serve, the Blue Bridge for a good view of the river, Lookout Park for another of the city, that one Meijer on the Beltline for whatever else we craved (the same one my family and I first ventured to 10 years ago for a snow shovel and frozen meals).
But this past New Year’s Day was distinct. Instead of filling the ache of a homebound itinerant, the city made me feel like a stranger. New strip malls had appeared in place of what I remembered as roadside forests. The sandwich shop I’d worked at the summer I turned 17 had been replaced by a Thai fusion restaurant. The ice cream shack on the river we’d ride our bikes to before we could drive was gone.
Even the people I saw — the ones who I see once a year at New Year’s Eve — felt like new people I was getting to know, not classmates, neighbors and teammates I’d grown up with. Few of us still belonged to the city we’d once held in common. Even if we ended up in the same college towns, we were no longer bound by the ritual duties of a shared hometown. Outside of Kent County, duties like jumping off the camelback bridge into the Thornapple River at dusk, like stumbling drunkenly through the Coast Guard Festival or like flocking to the 28th Street Steak ‘n Shake when you were high on a summer’s night no longer mattered. Ann Arbor has different rivers, different festivals and different Steak ‘n Shakes to be experienced.
It seems like three years is the right amount of time for strangeness to set in — the right amount of time for the duties to fade and for new ones to take their places. When we were all together this past New Year’s Eve, we all seemed older to me, more mature for certain. More than that, each of us now belonged to new places and new people. It was like being wavering between two realms of reality. In the first realm, I knew the whole and complete picture of my friends’ lives: their classes, their sports, their hobbies, their other friends, their houses. All of this became uncertain in the second realm. Their lives became more blurry.
I understood. Places change and people get older. I had my own new places and people back in Ann Arbor. The kids living in Grand Rapids now — who are familiar with the new strip malls, and the non-sandwich shop, and the ice-creamless river, and the duties of home among a shared reality — will come back five years from now and feel the same way. It was still unsettling that for the first time since I was a teenager, Grand Rapids didn’t feel like home to me.
When does a place start to feel like home, and when does it stop feeling like it? Even if I were to walk down the first block I have a memory of, Lymbar Drive in Houston, I’d be just another passerby with the vague recollection that I had drawn chalk on this sidewalk once, that I had scraped my knee on that curb, that I had learned to ride my bike over there. But Houston does not feel like my home — it hasn’t for a long time. Nor do Dallas and now Grand Rapids. I have a hard time understanding why.
I can’t help but wonder whether or not these places would feel like home if I’d lived in them for longer. What’s the threshold for acquiring a permanent home? Eight years, three decades, a lifetime? How long gone is long gone enough to feel like a tourist in the place that raised you?
The places I remember growing up have morphed into an indiscernible yet colorful bundle of houses, stoplights, sidewalks, fences, schools and people. Instead of watching seasons pass by in the same backyard each year, I saw green summers and brown ones — ones with big fir trees and ones with dust. I saw winters both warm and cold — ones with shorts and soccer at the playground and ones with frozen ponds and snow days. As jumbled as my many homes and childhoods become, they will never be short on variety and I will never be short on empathy for those trying to make a new home in a new place.
Going “home” now to my parents’ house in Oregon is a day-long parade of early morning flights, layovers in Las Vegas, or Minneapolis, or San Francisco, or Seattle and an unhealthy dose of airport food. But miraculously I always end up on the opposite end of the continent feeling as though I’ve somehow traveled through time.
I have, in a way: Instead of a singular, fluid place, my idea of home is interspersed with hiccups and gaps, with changes and intervals. There is no handprint in the cement, no tree I always climbed, no one long, unhalting, unbroken memory of a home to which I can return.
There are odd interruptions in the otherwise continuous flow of a lifetime with each uprooting; odd interruptions that inevitably feel like time travel once I look back at them. Like how my family and I traveled through time as we drove northward to Michigan almost 10 years ago, watching winter become something unrecognizable as it passed us by in the car windows. Like how I traveled through time when I returned to Grand Rapids just a few months ago, only to see an entirely new city in its place. Like how I travel through time after coming back to Ann Arbor each fall with a breath of relief. No matter what I’ve been up to, this city feels the same. This city is home, at least for right now.
I’ve been here long enough to reach some of the typical benchmarks: My Ann Arbor address is on my I.D. and I have an Ann Arbor District Library card. There are the unwritten ones, too: I can figure out how to get back to my house without GPS if I’ve driven too far away, give a stranger directions and restaurant recommendations or tell you where and when the city’s swing dance group practices in the summertime.
Then there are the things which truly christen it as home, like the time my brother and I dove to the bottom of the Huron River over and over again to find the glasses he’d lost the day before. Or the time my roommate came to jump my stalled car in the middle of Liberty Street during rush hour. Or the evening they closed down all of State Street before the art fair, and I rode my bike back and forth down the middle of the road without a single car or person to look out for.
There will inevitably come a day when I return to Ann Arbor to find myself a stranger. When it comes, I’ll walk through the streets I used to walk and past the places I used to live. I’ll seat myself at a window and watch the passerby come and go, completing their own ritual duties, eating at restaurants that never existed when I was here, heading home for the day. Then I’ll leave the city and the space between two realms that it has become. Maybe I’ll leave a little glad, a little restless and, time-traveling all the way, return to wherever I belong then.
For now, though, Ann Arbor will do. I’ll happily hang on to its white-washed front porches, its scattered collection of forgotten bicycles and to the big oak tree outside my bedroom window for a while longer. For four years, at least, I get to watch it all — the porches, the bicycles and the tree — change with the seasons. It’s comforting to know that even after those four years are up and I have gone, there’ll still be people sitting on the porches, leaving their bicycles to rust and watching the leaves change.