If what my dad says is true, I descend from a band of traveling, singing figure skaters. I imagine them –dark-eyed and wild-haired– wandering with their skates and bright scarves through dark Bohemian forests into the gracious little towns where they stopped to make their living. According to my dad they were fed and welcomed. Maybe once, as she carved loops and circles on the frozen lake, one of my ancestors locked eyes with a local carpenter and thought about him every day for the rest of her life. Maybe another dreamed of staying in one of those towns for months or years. Still, my ancestors didn’t make their home in the towns, they made it by traveling together. Home was on the road and on the ice and in their voices. Home was their togetherness.
From second grade through high school, I moved back and forth every Monday between my mom’s place and my dad’s. I took the bus to GramBea and Grandpa Thacher’s house after school once a week, I spent four or five days in Lonsdale with Grandma and Grandpa Skluzacek a few times each year, I spent a month every summer at Camp Lake Hubert. When I think of home, I don’t think of a single place. Home is something I have collected.
My mom and step-dad believed in orphan Thanksgivings. They invited all of their friends who didn’t have family in town and made a different kind of turkey and stuffing every year. I could smell onions, carrots, and celery sautéing in butter as I came downstairs Thanksgiving morning. Before the turkey went into the oven, Mom and I made cranberry quick bread –lemon and pumpkin too, if we had the time.
As the sun went down around 4:30, Steve built a fire, Mom and I set the tables, and friends started arriving. They brought wild rice casseroles, garlic mashed potatoes, cranberries with orange zest, sweet potatoes with pecans and brown sugar, apple tarts and pumpkin pies. We brought out the turkey and stuffing, the breads we had made and bottles of wine, and stayed at the table for hours. Sometimes we got lucky and it began to snow out on the marsh while we ate. As everyone left, full and connected, the woodsmoke curled up to the starry sky.
My time with Dad was more private, even secluded. The December after our second attempt at family had failed, my dad and I found ourselves alone again in the house on Malibu Drive. I was sixteen. My stepmother and her two daughters had left without a word one weekend when I was with my mom. I was fine with it. I remember bubble lights on the tree, the sharp, blank smell of snow. Each night, when my dad had had enough time alone in his shop and I was done with homework, we sat together in the family room. He lounged in his black Eames chair, looking out at the deck he had built with his own hands a few years before. I lay on my stomach on the floor, drawing or dreaming or writing (bad) poetry. We didn’t talk … we didn’t need to. As Walt Whitman said: “we were together. I forget the rest.”
When I think of home, I don’t think of a single place. Home is something I have collected.
When Mom had orchestra or Guthrie Theater tickets and Dad had to chaperone a high school hockey game, I took the bus after school with my cousin Jessica to GramBea and Grandpa Thacher’s house on Cooper Avenue. Jess and I slept downstairs in twin beds with turned wooden posts and yellow quilts. Before we lay down, we rose high on our knees in bed, facing the pillow and pulling the covers around our shoulders like capes. Grandma and Grandpa were frugal and let the house get chilly at night from October through April. Clutching the wad of blankets at our chests, we fell down onto our pillows, turning just our cheeks to face each other in the dark.
Once GramBea had kissed us good night, we played games in stage whispers. Our favorite involved taking turns creating elaborate configurations with our hands and trying to copy the other’s exactly. Lying in the darkness, only a narrow stripe of golden light at the door to our room, we twisted and laced our fingers in intricate forms.
“Can you do this?”
Jessica made an attempt, seeing neither her own hands nor mine in the other bed. “Like this?”
“No, like this.” We could never do it right and we never would– it didn’t matter. What mattered was hearing another voice in the dark.
I need a solid place, a single place, to feed and welcome those who pass through and decide to stay.
Grandma and Grandpa Skluzacek’s house was about an hour south of my house, so when I visited them I stayed for several days at a time. My memories of that house are all taste and scent. Grandma Betty fed me Malt-o-Meal or scrambled eggs in her basement kitchen while she did laundry and made filling for kolachkes. When I was finished eating, she tied an apron two or three times around my waist. Then she cut dozens of squares of dough with her knife — she was done before I could finish washing my hands–and pulled a kitchen chair up against the counter for me to stand on. We worked well together: she dropped a spoonful of poppy seed or prune filling on each piece of dough and I pinched the corners together to enclose it. When she served the rolls that night for supper, she told Grandpa I had made them all by myself.
Grandpa liked to drive us the four blocks to the Lonsdale corner store in his red Ford-F150, which smelled of tackle box, tobacco, and sharp-sweet sawdust. He would buy me a tall bottle of Bubble-Up and pretend he wasn’t showing me off to his friends, who all knew he was. They sat at the counter together in a sturdy row of pinstriped overalls and workshirts, rating tools and machinery, shaking their solemn heads over someone they knew who had fallen from a ladder. I perched on a stool at the end of the counter next to Grandpa in my cords and monogrammed sweater, forcing myself to finish all of the Bubble-Up. I knew what it meant to be included in this.
Until I had children, Camp Lake Hubert was the closest I came to having home all in one place. I spent eight summers there as a camper, experimenting with my character and learning to find my people. When I returned as a counselor after four summers away, I got dropped off one night in the upper parking lot without a flashlight. I walked all the way to Wrens cabin in that straightforward, thorough darkness I will always associate with the Minnesota Northwoods. I have a sense memory of that night, of knowing the trees and steps and buildings so well, understanding myself so clearly in relation to them, that I never even considered the possibility of being lost. I believed I would find my way so I found my way, on that night and others, both at camp and away.
Maybe I descend from a band of traveling, singing figure skaters who wandered from town to town, maybe it’s just a story. It doesn’t matter …I have never wanted to be one of the travelers. I want to be part of the town. I am not content to wander the way my ancestors did centuries ago. I am not a free spirit; I have always been in search of a place to land. In all of my traveling back and forth between parents, grandparents, camp and beyond, I never stayed anywhere long enough to feel completely at home.
Home is togetherness, yes. Home is my collection of people, recipes, and remembrances. But I have learned I can’t carry that on my back –I need architecture around it. I need a solid place, a single place, to feed and welcome those who pass through and decide to stay. Home for me is a Thanksgiving table, a quiet room, a bedroom, a kitchen. Home is another voice in the dark.