Being home has all these tangible benefits we visualize when we miss it – sleeping in one’s own bed, spending time with our family members, eating the cooking of the parent who cooks (and the one who doesn’t but tries for our sake). But on a level deeper than these obvious perks, more than anything else our bodies crave the familiar, almost subconscious reactions and sensations we accumulate in our childhood. Descending the stairs in my parents’ house takes eight steps: one, two, threefourfivesixseveneight as gravity kicks in. There’s the side-dodge I have to do as I step into my room, the half-turn to slide the bathroom door shut, the exact angle of maximum tilt the wooden desk chair’s aging joints can tolerate. It’s knowing exactly which boards in the hardwood creak, which way to turn the locks, and being able to flit through rooms in the dark while saving your shins. And then there’s the smells – not just of food but of carpet, and dish soap, and the smell of wet oak branches and cement after it rains. The smell of dogs, and how our hands know them and they know ours, leaning into us, paws in our palms and even knowing just how far we have to lean back so that they can give us dog kisses, but only just – on the tip of our chins. These are the things we remember in our bones, the memories we etch in the white of our marrow like tracks in snow. These are, I think, the kinds of nerve circuits we rely on to create the feeling of being “home.”
The truly brilliant aspect of this mechanism, though, isn’t how it lets us slip back into childhood, but in how it lets us create new homes. When I first moved to Charlottesville I went to this antique shop on Ivy Road, close to the apartment because it was our (my mother and me) last stop before the official move-in. I needed a kitchen table and found one, a beautiful piece of oak with eaves that could fold out when needed. I must have snagged some article of clothing on the brass ridge that supports one of the eaves a hundred times in my first month in that apartment. But now, I barely notice it’s there. I know now exactly how many button presses it takes to start my dishwasher, which way the large burner on the stove tilts, and how many cooking minutes to add to a recipe to accomodate the oven’s overly optimistic thermometer. In this slow way, one begins to scratch new memories in the old marrow, and create the semblance of another home.