Thousands of times I must’ve written as my return address 1337 Ontario St., Oshkosh, Wis.
For eight summers we walked the dog around the block of our old neighborhood. Seven winters, we shoveled snow to free the van. Three times we carried brand-new babies nestled under blankets and set their carseats on the kitchen floor. Then every two days or so we’d put their shrieking bodies in bathwater that we’d checked five times for the right temperature.
And every night we’d tuck them into beds or cribs and pray they’d sleep the night just this once. Around 2 in the morning, one would cry and I’d hold them in the dark, my toes pushing into blue carpet of the baby’s room to rock us both back to sleep.
No one had to teach us to number our days: we realized each was temporary since we weren’t Wisconsin natives. When I think about those three babies in their sleepers, nuzzling my neck in the darkness, I need to remember that the basement was wet every spring and that night a bat flew around the living room. I need to remember that the garage would’ve held a small pony (maybe) and the backyard was swampy in the spring. A chipmunk had moved into the basement. The neighbors were strangers.
My daughters don’t remember any of this. The oldest has blips of memories of the old house -- it was blue, she says. “There was a porch swing. And I had a bedroom with a little white bed.”
The younger two girls marvel at her divining this information from the ether: they were just babies when we moved to Michigan four years ago. No, I and my husband are the memory-keepers of our family’s genesis years: only we really remember what the red dining room looked like in the sunset, sitting on the deck with friends and burgers -- a million other transient moments.
Only we, Dave and I, labored under leaden chests as we pulled out of the driveway for the last time and moved to a house six hours away for his new job. It was then that some Pavlovian response to any random Ontario Street memory lodged itself in my days like a stone inside a shoe. Impossible to avoid, I’d wince with every step, knowing the pain was part of moving forward, forward toward the next place I could call home.
Home, that elusive thing that meant something between cookie dough-scented kitchens and dirty socks under the couch. It’s part watching a movie in the basement, part lying on the couch on a rainy day. The place we pray and rest and eat and talk. Sidewalks to stroll with the dog; long dinners with friends and beds with growing children in them. Neon blue toothpaste in the sink and laundry in the machine and mail in the box. Chocolate hidden on a shelf higher than the kids can reach and library books in the basket.
And then, too, home is also something I can’t define: that longing we feel when, even if we have all these things, something else in us still wants. Something still swivels like a compass point, drifting toward something beyond what’s possible now -- we’re longing for a place we’ve not yet been.
We brought with us some of these things from Ontario Street to Waverly Road -- but they lacked color because, ugh, that stone in our shoes. Still, I pieced together a semblance of home in that rental house: I filled bookshelves with familiar novels and picture frames with photographs (all taken in Oshkosh); I brought my bible; I had my God, our children, our dog. I baked the same sweet breads, stirred the same kinds of soup to fill the new space with the same spices that wafted from the kitchen in Wisconsin. But something, that ever-changing litany of characteristics I need to feel at home, was always incomplete.
And to this, the prophet Jeremiah said, “plant gardens and build houses.” (All in a place where the ground was frozen. Good one, Jeremiah.)
Instead of seeds we planted ourselves: we found our church. We introduced ourselves to new friends and shared that soup and bread over dinner. When our church moved to Lansing from just outside the city, we moved to Lansing from our rural rental. We started calling it home and it became the place we wanted to be when we weren’t there. That’s home, really. The place we want to be when we’re not there.
And in planting ourselves, we felt hints of permanence.
And then we planted gardens. Jeremiah smiled, I’m sure.
And then we ate the produce, sharing the tomatoes with neighbors on all sides of us.
Somehow, amid all these small things, I lost the nagging sensation of loss.
How could we, when our feet were in this dirt? Plan to stay, Jeremiah wrote. So we do. Write these things down, he wrote: remember these things. So we do. And in that we keep all the places we’ve been before while we live wherever God’s placed us.
Maybe all together they make a complete picture of home. Maybe.
Erin F. Wasinger now calls herself a Michigander by way of Ohio, Kentucky, and Wisconsin. She lives in Lansing with her husband and three daughters. Her book, The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us, co-authored by Sarah Arthur, releases Jan. 31; more at www.yearofsmallthings.com.