I haven’t lived in Iowa for over 20 years, but I have always considered it home. My family roots run deep there, laid down by Scottish farmers and sunk into the dark fertile soil through the decades by their ancestors in a small town called Adelphi.
I now live in Chicago, but when I visit my family in Iowa, I cross the Mississippi River from Illinois into Iowa on Interstate 80 and I sigh and drink in the scenery along the stretch of highway that takes me toward Adelphi. The neatly trimmed ditches and the red-tailed hawks sitting on the fence posts next to the road, the deep green corn fields, the silky white clouds against the blue sky—these details wrap around me like my mother’s arms, and I remember all of the hundreds of times I’ve made this trip, the rhythmic thumping of the tires hitting the seams in the highway ticking off the miles until I reached home.
There is one stretch of rural highway within a half-mile of the “old home place”—the original 80 acres where my ancestors first settled—where you will find a row of houses set a few acres apart each. These houses hold my childhood memories.
On one corner is the house where my great aunt and uncle lived. Then up the hill is the brick bungalow where my grandfather lived when I was growing up—a widower after my grandmother died of cancer a few months before I was born. Next to that house is a white four-square farmhouse where I lived until I was 12.
All of these houses have now been sold and no longer remain in the family.
I drove down this strip of road a few weeks ago when I was visiting my father. I’ve often dreamed of going back there to live. To buy back either the white farmhouse or my grandfather’s bungalow—which has an awesome slant-ceilinged attic that would make a perfect writing studio.
But I could barely see the houses through the thick oak trees that were obscuring the view. They were like a fortress that had grown around my memories to shut me out—telling me that too much time has passed. “Move on, there’s nothing to see here.”
My husband, David, and I talk about moving back. We always talk.
“Do you think we could live here?” I ask him.
“You’d get bored,” he replies.
“No, I think it would be an easier life.”
“Maybe. But we’d miss our friends. And Lake Michigan.”
“But we’d be closer to family.”
I don’t know if it will ever happen. But even if I moved home now, it wouldn’t be the same. I’m not sure if I would find what I’m looking for—community, comfort, peace.
Home isn’t as much a place as a period of time. A time before we all moved away. A time before my mother died, when all of my siblings and cousins and aunts and uncles lived within one square mile. When neighbors or relatives would show up at our house, open the front door without knocking, and yell, “Anybody home?” When we’d sit around the table and talk and laugh and eat pie. When my dad would take us for a drive down the road on hot evenings to visit his cousin and get a bottle of pop.
We are the first generation to leave that land, to become unmoored from that place and family and community, and a part of me feels like we are betrayers. Or pioneers.
Shortly after our daughter, Desta, came to us as a foster child when she was two and a half, she was eating pasta at the table when out of the blue, she put down her fork, looked me straight in the eyes, and said, “Where is my home?”
I pointed to her bedroom and her bed with all of her toys, and said, “Your home is here. You are home.”
“Oh,” she said simply, and went back to eating. After that, every chance I got I told her that she was home. That she belonged with us. That we were her family.
But even as I reassured her, I was wondering the same thing. Where is my home?
At the time, we lived in a small condo on the north side of Chicago. We had lived there for 11 years—a speck of time compared to the 150 years my family lived on the same land in Iowa. When I first moved to Chicago, I never thought I would stay. But I have lived here for 20 years. In that amount of time, roots are bound to grow, even if it’s through the cracks in the concrete city sidewalks.
As David and Desta and I drive back to Chicago after a long weekend in Iowa, we hear the thumping of the tires on the seams in the road that tick off the miles until we get back to the city. And with each passing mile the thoughts of moving back to my childhood home grow dimmer.
Maybe the trees in front of my childhood home weren’t saying “Move on, there’s nothing to see here.” Maybe they were really saying, “Move on. You have grown beyond this place. It’s up to you to build a new home. Put down roots elsewhere, and you will thrive.”
I think of this as I take Desta to the beach, and to the farmer’s market, and drive the city streets and put her to bed at night. We are sinking into it. Into this place, but also into these memories and community and our combined histories. Where is our home? It is here. Right now. With each other.
Karen Beattie is the author of Rock-Bottom Blessings (Loyola Press, 2013), which won an Excellence in Publishing Award from the Association of Catholic Publishers, and A Book of Grace-Filled Days (Loyola Press, forthcoming in the fall of 2017). She has an MA in Journalism from Drake University, and has been published in America Magazine, Patheos.com, Aleteia’s For Her, and Christianity Today. She lives on the West side of Chicago with her husband and 7-year-old daughter. Connect with Karen on Facebook or Twitter.