Houses and Homes

Perhaps my favorite quote from any book is towards the end of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods:

He sat down on a grassy bank and looked at the city that surrounded him, and thought, one day he would have to go home. And one day he would have to make a home to go back to. He wondered whether home was a thing that happened to a place after a while, or if it was something that you found in the end, if you simply walked and waited and willed it long enough.

That was on my mind because on our recent trip to the East Coast (more on that soon) we passed through several of the states that I’d lived in during other parts of my life: New Jersey, Delaware, North Carolina. And while we were traveling, I read Gaiman’s latest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (more on that later, too) and I was struck by another quote that seemed to come from the same well. It was from the book’s protagonist who was seeing his childhood home for the first time in a long while:

I stared at the house, remembering less than I had expected about my teenage years: no good times, no bad times. I’d lived in that place, for a while. It didn’t seem to be any part of who I was now.

That quote made me think not about the abstract concept of “home”, but about the specific places that I’d lived and how I felt about them now. Were there any traces of me left there? And after so many years for some of them, were they still a part of me?

So even though we only took the time to drive by one of them (my grad school apartment), I decided to take a little tour.

The Ancestral Betz Home

The Ancestral Betz Home

The Ancestral Betz Home

This is the house I grew up in Camden, New Jersey. We didn’t go past the it this trip, but we have in the past. The house has been out of the family for about a decade and I’m surprised at how little it moves me to see it or the old neighborhood. Lots of great memories, of course, but I don’t really miss the place of it. Home-score: 6

Grad school

Grad school

Grad school

I didn’t count the various places in college, because “home” was still technically (and emotionally) back in Camden, but this was the first place that I ever really lived on my own. The complex looks pretty much like it did 25 years ago. When we drove past, I was sentimental for the idea of it, but not the boxed, no-balcony, sweltering-in-the-summer-ness of it. In some ways, my real home at Carolina was the lab and the people in it. Home-score: 5




I lived here when I was a post-doc, working in Delaware — famously (or infamously) sharing this townhouse with Roomie. There was a lot of pizza and video games and drinking at the Irish bar two blocks away. We rented it from my first mentor, which added an extra connection. I was close to my family. Very warm feelings for Monroe Street. Home-score: 7

The House That Shall Not Be Named

She Who Must Not Be Named, part I

She Who Must Not Be Named, part I

Occasionally here I will mention my years with She Who Must Not Be Named, but I try not to dwell there. This is where we lived. It was nice house in Illinois. It started out okay. I shoveled that driveway a lot. It was not okay by the time we left. Home-score: 3


She Who Must Not Be Named, part 2

She Who Must Not Be Named, part 2

Our move to San Diego and subsequent split happened so quickly, I’m not sure I could correctly remember the layout of this house. No warm feelings for this one at all. The most non-home place on this list. Home-score: 1

My apartment

Back on my feet

Back on my feet

After the split, I needed a place to live — and to recoup. It was here. It was a nice apartment — nicer than my grad school one, that’s for sure. But I knew it was a way-station and never quite invested myself in it. Home-score: 4

Stately Betz Manor

Stately Betz Manor

Stately Betz Manor

My first real home in California. I bought in 2003 and lived there until we bought The Aerie in 2007. I felt really at home there — and I thought it reflected me. The better me that came out of all the tough times before it. Home-score: 8

The Aerie

The Aerie

The Aerie

My home now — and it’s hard to imagine any of the other places ever feeling THIS much like home. Home-score: 10

And so, here I am. I am home. I feel like The Beloved and I have made home that’s worthy of being “a home to go back to”. But who knows if there will be other homes after The Aerie? Perhaps eight is enough. Perhaps.

26 thoughts on “Houses and Homes

  1. Where I live now is surrounded by other areas within walking distance or public transport taking under 20 minutes. Ghosts of my younger selves sit at bus stops, go to school, go on dates, go shopping, wheel children in prams.
    Thanks for sharing your ghosts with us.

    • Marymtf — thanks for the wonderful comment. I think about my brother, who lives 10 minutes from the house we grew up in. He’s lived in the same house since he got married 30 years ago.

  2. Wow. I think the fact that you can even list all the places you’ve lived is amazing. As an Army brat, I couldn’t begin to tell you everywhere I lived. I never finished a single year at the same school until I was a junior in high school. Then there was a series of single-life apartments, followed by first marriage apartments and houses, and then followed by some more single apartments, and then second marriage apartments and homes. Some of the houses are meaningful to me, but most are lost in the “sands of time.” I’ve always envied anyone who could point to a house and say, “That’s where I grew up.” So, there is that perspective. I really enjoyed your story, Steve, and the quotes, as well. Which reminds me, I want to download The Ocean at the End of the Lane tonight.
    Great post.

    • Marcia — I can’t imagine what it would be like as a kid to be constantly on the move like that. Everything must seem so transitional — but maybe that’s not a bad perspective when you think about it.

      • I think whether it is a positive or a negative depends on the child involved and the parental support offered. It was not a positive thing for me, always being the new kid in school, having no permanent friends and being excruciatingly self-conscious. I was taller than every other kid, gawky, and made straight A’s. I stood out, and not in a good way, until I was in high school. And of course, by then, I got to stay around long enough to make real friends, which made all the difference.

  3. This was touching, Steve. I find myself missing my old house in Minnesota, but not Minnesota or the circumstances under which I lived there. (Single mom and widow, raising three kids in a conservative suburb: not a good memory.) I guess so much depends on where you were emotionally when you lived in a place. I think about the little pet cemetery we had in the backyard—all those little boxes containing Snowball the Hamster, Flower the Rat, Buddy the Budgie (not my favorite pet, but oh well), plus the various wild animals we found dead on the lot. And of course, the first baby steps, the first days of kindergarten, high school graduations, and other childhood milestones. The house was torn down by some wretched real estate investor when we sold it, so we can’t even visit the place anymore: but the memories remain with us, and that’s the important part.

    • Thanks HG — I’d been thinking of writing a couple of posts about our trip, but this idea was the one that percolated to the top. It’s a strange feeling of nostalgia and something approaching regret. I look at my brother, who lived in our house as kids and then has been in the same house since he got married. I know that I’ll never have that sort of sense of permanence to a place. Of course, if I had it, I’d probably be itching to move.

    • I so completely know what you mean, HG, about missing the house but not (all) “the circumstances under which I lived there”! I feel that way about a beautiful 1920s home I owned in Albany NY in the 1990s and my transitional – but much loved – home in Santa Fe. Not sure I could give firm scores to them as Steve has done here.

  4. Home score 8 when I said ‘hurry up, no you don’t get to think about making an offer-write it now:)
    Home Score 10-I remember the day to this day:)!!

  5. Lovely, heartwarming post.
    I’ve lived in a fair share of homes too, and for me, every place I lived (even that creaky grad school apartment) felt like home or at least 9 on the home score. The remaining 1 is the “what really is home?” type philosophies that drive me nuts.

    • Thanks LG — I think it’s great that you’ve been able to create that sense of “home” wherever you’ve been — what a gift. I think in my last decade, I’ve finally been able to do that. Late arriving wisdom.

  6. This made smile. And feel all nostalgic.
    I can’t imagine living anywhere but where I am now. And, I can’t imagine us ever selling.
    It might be fun to do a post like this……we’ll see! :)

    • Thanks Lauri — it made me feel nostalgic too. They weren’t all good years, but they were all mine. I’d have never said that we’d stay in the same place for long, but we’ve been in The Aerie for >6+ years now — easily the longest stretch in my adult life. So who knows?

  7. Loved this tour and laughed out loud at the “Stately Manor” comment :)

    Isn’t it funny how some places have such distinct memories for us and others are just addresses?


  8. I was also an “Army brat” but was lucky enough to come along towards the end of my dad’s military career, so I didn’t move around as much as some people did. But, I’d never be able to find photographs of all the places we lived because there are a few I don’t remember and a couple that don’t exist anymore.

    There was one house in Lawton that I thought of as “home,” and I was very sad when we sold it and moved away. Now that house sits amid almost constant crime scene tape and I’d be afraid to go outside after dark … and a little leery of going out in the daylight hours as well. I don’t miss it at all now.

    My dad’s house – next door – was the place I lived the longest and I always thought of it as “Home” … and thought it would even become my future “Home.” That didn’t pan out, and now I look at it and … it’s just a house. Not even a grand house as I once thought it was.

    But “HOME” is where I live now – almost 15 years, which will set a new ‘record’ for longevity of dwelling places this December. It’s paid for, it’s been ‘customized’ to meet my wants and needs (about 3/4 of the way, anyway), and I cannot imagine living anywhere else.

    • GOM — sometimes I think I’ve moved around often and then speak to others and realize that it might be a bunch of places that I’ve lived, but compared to other folks it’s a drop in the bucket.

      I’m glad that your current home is really home. I’ve been in The Aerie for longer than any place except my childhood home.

  9. I’ve been having similar thoughts recently, but about cities/towns. We’re just back from a visit to New Zealand, and I was struck by how Auckland felt like a second home. I only lived there for about a month, but I’ve visited several other times, and something about it… I don’t know. It reminded me of the feeling I got when I flew back to San Diego for my first job interview when I was trying to leave New Jersey. I remember sitting in the car the company had sent for me, waiting at the light on Harbor Drive looking at the boats in the marina and thinking “I’m home.”

    • Cloud — are you saying you didn’t think of New Jersey as home?!?!? :)

      I think we felt about Cambria the way you’ve decribed about NZ and your first trip here. It’s a place where I can easily “see” myself — and maybe that’s what home is in a way — the place where we put ourselves when we’re happy. :)

  10. Great post. I’ve always regretted (somewhat) that I had lived in so many places that I could hardly remember them all, and could not identify one as “home”. But reading this, I think it might be with whom you make your home and not the physical house that matters.

    • Thanks Lynn (and sorry I missed this comment) — it’s strange as The Beloved and I have begun to have conversations about what the “next phase” might be for us — even since this post went up — and I’ve already tried to start imagining what life would be like in yet another place. At least this time, I’m confident that it will be a good home, too.

  11. The Delaware home is really gorgeous – although I admit a lab-away-from-home sounds really cool especially in North Carolina. Even more if it’s studying marine creatures. Sigh.

    • Amelie — I loved that house. It was a great 3-story row house in Wilmington that was built in the 1830s or 40s. Exposed brick inside. We rented it from my supervisor at the time, who’d moved out of the city to become a country squire.

  12. Pingback: “Home” | GOM in Oklahoma's Blog

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