Home, for me, is in western Indiana, West Lafayette, even though I lived there for only one year of my childhood. I remember it as a time of brutality and shame, and I think of it as home because it is the only year I can remember when my father lived with us. At the end of that year, my parents divorced, and my younger brother and sister and I have not seen him since.
Home was a cheap ranch-style house on a small lot bordered by a gravel driveway that crackled whenever my father or anyone else drove on it. My father, a twenty-year-man in the Navy, had to duck his head when he came through the doorway. He was probably not that tall, but that is how I remember him. His legs were so long that, when he wore his sailor’s pants, they looked like limp flags hanging from their poles. It was 1959 and the Navy had sent him to Purdue to study mathematics, so after a long time overseas, he and the family were reunited.
Until then, the rest of us lived where my mother found work. Whenever she was asked where her husband was, she said, “Following Russian trawlers in the Black Sea.” Whether or not it was true, it was 1959 and everyone, including us, believed it.
He was an intensely rational and humorless man, a Methodist I think, who became violent when things in the household failed to run as smoothly as on board ship. To keep our allowance money in the family, he bought candy in bulk and resold it to my brother, sister, and me. He kept the money in a coin changer and made careful notes of how much credit he advanced us after our allowances ran out for that week. Both my parents are from stoic Indiana farm families, where emotion is a weakness and any kind of strength is a virtue. My mother spent much of her time trying to calm him down and keep him unaware of things that might have upset him. He was happiest when he was alone, in the small closet where he studied — hardly big enough for the small desk and chair he used let alone for him — or in the yard working on his motorbike. I remember its smooth red finish and him kneeling over it, the sleeves of his cream-colored shirt rolled up over his elbows, his patient gaze over his set of immaculately clean wrenches.
So much of my feelings for home come from my fear of my father. Home was not a place of security from outside dangers but an arena filled with its own dangers. It was a constantly confusing task to decide which place would be safer during a crisis.
Our neighborhood, for all I knew, was all there was of Lafayette — flat, uninteresting land pierced by a set of railroad tracks and covered with houses, like ours, that never seemed intended to be permanent family dwellings. A stiff wind made them shudder, and a violent storm, it seemed, would probably tumble them into a heap like empty milk cartons.
When we weren’t busy beating each other up or making a social outcast of one of our group, the neighborhood kids played marbles for keeps, traded comic books by the wagonload once a month, and built go-carts from baby carriage wheels and flimsy fruit crates that sagged when we climbed into them. One kid smelled strange, another was too fat, and another wore his hair in a Mohawk. We were as brave and fearless outside as we were quiet and obedient at home. We callously ordered younger brothers and sisters not to follow us. We hid in a deep camouflaged pit dug in an empty field, where we hatched malicious plots against imaginary enemies. On a dare we passed our small, eight-year-old hands through the flames shooting out of trash barrels. We hopped slow moving freights for one-hundred-yard rides and told stories no one questioned about the legless boy, and about the severed hand found in the tall grass by the tracks.
What I remember most vividly, though, is sitting around the supper table, our hands folded and heads bowed as my father read aloud from his heavy Bible. He often read for twenty minutes or more, while the untouched food on the table lost its heat, and the churchbell rang out the hour, and darkness settled slowly over the flat Indiana farmland.
We learned, even at that young age, that our friends, our parents, and life were not fair. That if we won the purest Purie or the roundest milk-white Shooter in marbles, we would soon lose it again. That any one of us could become an outcast on the whim of the others and could win back respect only by bribery and by finding another victim to take our place. That the more ingenious we were at anything, the greater the chances that our fathers would punish us for it.
We were proud of our fathers at the same time that we feared them. We were proud of them even when they punished us, and imagined ourselves to be miniature versions of them. Since my father was a Navy man, my friends assumed he was tough. As his son, I had his honor to defend. This meant, according to the peculiar code we lived by, that anyone was allowed to punch me in the stomach. My part was to show no sign of pain. We lived in this strange atmosphere of fear and pride without realizing that there might be any other way to live.
I don’t think of home as a place as much as I think of it as a time of life when the weather in my father’s eye meant everything to me. I felt toward my father the way I felt toward the solar system, illustrated on a poster taped to the ceiling over my bed. I would gaze at it for hours in the middle of the night, terrified by its vastness, its heartless power, its frightening beauty.
The sound of a word is almost as intriguing as its meaning. Have we made words to sound like what they mean? Or have we come to associate a certain emotion with the word? Take the word “smack” for instance. It almost hurts to hear it. It’s hard. It stings. Did we invent the word smack because it sounded like someone being hit across the face? Or did we just come to think of the pain when we saw or heard the symbol which was arbitrarily assigned?
I’m sure someone has researched the question and has the answer or, at least, an answer. I have neither the time nor the inclination at the moment to find it. However, the question was brought to mind by the subject of this month’s US column: Home. I said the word to myself a few times to try to get my thoughts in order and, before I knew it, a subtle transformation occured and it settled in the pit of my stomach as OM.
In the meantime, I had come up with no clear picture of what home meant to me. Suddenly, I realized it was there, quite literally, in the pit of my stomach. My home in the universe, my center is inside and nowhere else. The peace of home is in the om. Although I have nothing against the smell of apple pie drifting through a house, or well worn steps that creak when you walk on them, these are not home. I treasure the love of family and friends, the joy of belonging, but these are not home either. Home lies inside. It is made manifest in the extent to which we are able to live in harmony with all that exists. It is the sound of the universe undisturbed, the sound of one hand clapping. Is it merely chance that Home and Om sound alike?
Rae M. Hamilton
Washington, D. C.
Home lies inside. It is made manifest in the extent to which we are able to live in harmony with all that exists.
I am a lonely woman. (Even the typewriter is rather afraid to speak it.) I live in a light and airy house, filled with food, dust, paintings, three cats, lovely fabrics of antique textures, and all sorts of junk. Rarely, it is filled with people; sometimes it holds a few. I see my life inside this house as a sort of time exposure, ribbons of light in and out of the rooms where people have been, blue streaks for some, yellow or amber for others. There is a lot of light in the kitchen, plenty inside the small bathroom, and around my bed are loops and concentrations: the light grows very intense there.
Now I sit in the quiet room where the typewriter sits, where the warped wooden ironing board hides in the corner, and beads and wires glisten on dusty white linen. There are faint lines of light leading into here, green they appear, and several violet ones down to the extra bed. This room has an air of musty meditation, as I imagine a monk’s cell must have felt like. It has trunks and dark drawers that perhaps hide things from the casual glance, hiding things even from my memory.
From this vantage, I can see two towels hanging on the open bathroom door. It is a fancy door, panels and mouldings glimpsing into the lives of people who once built this house and lived their years here. The towels are peach and rich, still damp from drying off a man’s wet body a few days ago. I can still hear him pissing into the pool of water, walking away without flushing it (not to deprive the larger environment of water, etc.) His presence hangs around in more than the ribbons I can see: I hear words up through the space between us, sometimes I feel the soft/abrasive texture of his unshaven cheek next to mine.
Sometimes I try to follow my cats around on their explorations. I usually grow restless after kicking around a squashed grape for a while, or repelled by the torture of a roach, so I wander off. I find it quite difficult to jump through the broken screen that is their private entranceway. Then at times a cat becomes disoriented while I am following her around and she begins to think that she is following me around. When I sit down, she gratefully jumps into my lap and curls up for a snooze, escaping from all this complicated business.
Just now, Sabina, the eldest of the three, tiptoed up to this doorway, then arched her back with her tail high and danced through the room in three jumps. As soon as she got to the kitchen — a few feet away — she resumed her tiptoeing. She sensed that I was writing about her and decided to put on a good performance. Bravo, mon petit esprit!
My house is really an ice castle, lit by dozens of shimmering torches up and down its long halls, perched under its high ceilings, and lighting the lofty pinnacle of its front porch. Its weather is always cool, regardless of season or storms. I wage an endless battle with its peculiar atmosphere, always trying to entreat warm air to creep inside. Mornings in the spring or fall, I tug and curse at all the dozens of windows (and they grow in number every day) to leave each cracked or propped open to just the right aperture to allow a sort of crooked cross-ventilation that is about as easy for the breezes to follow as a game of billiards. Thus, every morning, I leave the house in wools and furs, drawing stares from people who are dressed in shorts and sundresses. Every evening, no matter where I am, I feel a great compulsion to rush home and shut all those windows again, so I won’t have to spend a shivering night madly playing the guitar or washing a steaming sinkful of dishes just to keep warm.
On days like this one, when the frost has just begun to choke up the engine of my reliable old car, I look longingly at the shy proscenium of my fireplace. I almost get to the point of throwing in a few year-old, dusty logs and starting a grand fire, even though I know the living room will immediately fill with smoke. Before this, I chide myself, I should have found a chimney sweep. A familiar fantasy sets in: open up the flue, knock down all those bird’s nests, mountains of soot. Maybe even get a wood stove. I can call up Seth at the Wood Pile, get a free demonstration, he’s my friend and all . . . I go through this every year, all my fantasies disappearing as soon as the gas is reconnected.
But that, in itself, is no less labor intensive than lighting a damn fire! I cursed myself each of the three dozen times I dialed the gas company’s number and listened to the busy signal. I could actually hear the vibes of all the other people cursing, sighing, screaming at the poor overworked clerks who probably have to fight down a wave of nausea on their way to work the first crisp fall morning every year. But — what’s this? — finally they answered my call, laden as it was with every Druidic spell and African whammy I could fabricate. I was overjoyed, until they told me they couldn’t come by for about four days. Stoicism, I said to myself, strength, ingenuity will get me through. My teeth were chattering all the same, as I pulled on another sweater.
Despite these occasional tribulations, I manage to merge with the seasons quite gracefully for an airy soul like me with no Earth planets to root me. On very cold days, I immerse myself in a steaming bath for warmth, luxuriating until all the hot water runs out. Then some days are so hot that I try to remain absolutely motionless for an hour or so, perhaps moving my arm to lift ice water to my lips; feeling faint breezes evaporate my sweat slowly, very slowly. Ah, the people I have brought into my bed for warmth in the winter. And the people I have sought to accompany me to cool restaurants or theaters in the summers, in desperate flight from the heat. But in the mellow fall, or in the spring, I ask people to come inside my house, to share my sunlight through the white windows: see reflections of the trees outside the house in their faces.
Illumination is also a problem in my house. I don’t like the dark. No matter how irrational or un-economical my feelings may appear, light definitely lightens my spirits. Darkness is for thieves and roaches, graduate students’ carrells, seances. I banish it from my environs. But my house is long and roomy, so that the passage from one end to the other is quite dark unless nearly all the lights are on. Well-meaning friends turn off each light as they leave a room, only to have me turn them all back on again as I walk through. I’m always bringing new lamps into the house, old ones, discarded by friends or strangers: a little less eyestrain, a little more warmth.
Rare mornings, the ice castle melts. Prismed shafts of solar energy bore holes into the chill armor I’ve grown accustomed to, and if I sleep very late, I wake only to light — healing, loving, warm. My scrawny houseplants drink gratefully. My scientific cats nestle into the three optimum receptor points of this wealth: nooks that possess the combined attributes of height, softness and proximity to a window (with simultaneous proximity to a heat vent an added treat.) Late in the day, when the eastern front of the house is in shadow, the cats resolve all long-standing feuds and curl up on top of each other under one skinny shaft from the southwest. Alas, I’ve tried vainly to utilize the warmth of these spots upon my own cold bones: they are cat-size only.
For security (the burden of my material karma) I lock my doors these days, which is a bit unusual in this trusting neighborhood. A key I hide in a very obvious place, to let in friends and repair people, and to save me the trouble of breaking windows, legs, or the skin of my hands to force my way in. I don’t really invite intruders: they would be more like party crashers who can always get in if they possess the appropriate social graces and know the right address.
Yesterday, however, I walked into the house after perhaps an hour’s absence, and I felt a chill of fear. The foreign odor of cigarettes still hung in the air, and it occurred to me that someone might still be there. I called out to this smelly Presence, but no one answered. I boldly tiptoed down the hall and flung open a door. Nothing jumped out at me. Then I suddenly remembered that I had called the Landlord’s Associates this morning about a leak in my bathroom ceiling from the bathtub a floor above. It seemed strange indeed that they should come to inspect it the same day: two weeks is the usual interval. But in poking around the bathroom, I found nothing either repaired or misplaced. Only some debris from a nearby ceiling scattered on the floor evidenced any activity of my secretive visitor.
I had forgotten all about this little mystery by the next morning. As I stepped into the bathtub, I flicked on the transistor radio I keep nearby (an essential tool in the purification ritual) and was startled to hear Buck Owens crooning some cowboy love song over the AM frequency. This Visitor may not have repaired much while he was here, but he surely enjoyed his little inspection tour!
Weeks later, as the drips from my ceiling became streams, and my pleas to the landlord became screams, I received a telephone call at 7:00 a.m. “This is (mumble-mumble) from Harried Plumbing, and, uh, is it 0K if we come in today and take a look at the leak in your ceiling?” “Sure,” I say, “The key’s under the rug.” “Well, uh, uh, do you mind if we cut a hole in your ceiling — you know, we got to get up in there to see where the leak’s coming from.” “Whatever you have to do . . . ” remembering the holes they’d cut in outside walls in January to repair breaks in frozen pipes, “Just please fix up the hole as soon as you can . . . ”
When I came home that evening, I found a huge, gaping hole, rafters full in view, and I could hear all the goings-on of my upstairs neighbors in their bathroom. Those plumbers had dutifully swept once over the floor, and had piled all the dust, splinters and sheetrock into my trashcan and the kitchen pot that had been catching the drip. But there was a fine, or downright grainy dust covering everything. One of the most disgusting moments of my life occurred when, after I had cleaned up everything as far as I could see, I began to brush my teeth. I reached automatically to the cup I keep for the purpose, and filled it with water to rinse my mouth out. I took a half a sip and gagged: there was a nickel-sized piece of sheetrock in the water. And, cruel irony: the drip goes on.
Sometimes this house assails me with a chaos of sound, intruding upon my inner music, drowning out the inflections of the soft voices in my head. I can walk through the front door, into what seems a still and quiet ambiance, when abruptly, noise starts to emanate from my living room table. Newspapers, journals, printed announcements, political leaflets all scream and call out to me from their heaps. Some beckon in voices soft and seductive, some in harsh authoritarian basso profundo, others in the alarming staccato of radio news reporters. I flee, rushing past the muffled grumbles of an unmade bed, through the whursperations of dust balls in an empty hall, into the back room. Groans, sighs, scolding sounds echo from this sunny place, where the cast-off odds and ends of furniture plead for more prominent locations, more appropriate uses. A steamer trunk in the corner snips and whimpers at the disorganized clatter of tools and brushes and junk dancing on its lid. I hear the derisive laughter from a pile of laundry sprawled on the sofa.
I consider entering the kitchen, but the laughter is louder from in there, horrible shouts and cackles from the gangle of dirty dishes. So I head for my piano, a potent weapon against all this discordance. At first, dissonances, minor keys, jarring rhythms predominate, but gradually I am able to ignore the chaos around me as the music takes hold of my fingers. Improvisation is its own reward. After just a short while, I have forgotten about the noise altogether, as the music wiggles and flashes under my hands, and my body grows loose and dancy. It’s a funny thing, too: the music lingers, even after I’ve left the piano, restoring a sense of harmony and quiet to my house.
We were proud of our fathers at the same time that we feared them. We were proud of them even when they punished us, and imagined ourselves to be miniature versions of them.
“My Head Is My Only Home —
Except When It Rains”
I was born six years after World War II was officially declared over, on July 26, 1951. In 1955 my mother remarried an Army creep and for the next eight years we moved 12 times and lived 27 months in Germany. My family finally settled in Little River, N.C., about seven miles from Brevard. I entered the service on Nov. 3, 1968 at the induction center in Charlotte and was discharged six months, nine days and 12 hours later. An Army psychiatrist determined I had U.N.T (Unsuppressable Nomadic Tendencies) and recommended I be given a General Discharge under honorable conditions. I kept proving that doctor right every opportunity possible by hitching from Fort Hood, Texas, to Brevard, N.C., then calling my company commander to tell him I’d arrived home safely.
Discharged from the Army before my 18th birthday, June 16, 1969, I went home to Brevard and enrolled in Brevard Senior High School, a semi-normal 18-year-old sophomore. I worked my ass off that year and by the fall of ’71, was a certified ring-toting senior. But in October, the sky fell out.
In retrospect, it was the saddest day of my life and a major turning point. My 15-year-old girl friend’s father caught us making love and I was California bound with $100 in my pocket and the fear of the Pope in my soul. Interstates 85 and 40 became the King’s Highway west; you get there, they’ll do the rest. Along with 1nterstates 10, 70, 80, 90, depending on the season, weather, rides. . . .
Since 1970, I’ve hitchhiked across America 26 times — partially out of the love-hate relationship I have with this country and partly to appease the beast that lives inside of me. The beast that just wants to run . . . and run . . . and run . . .
Over the last several years I’m sure part of my sanity has taken residency in dozens of homes in small towns and large cities criss-crossing this country from Eagle Nest, New Mexico, to Portland, Oregon, to Skyland, North Carolina, to Butte, Montana. (So be it.) The rest of me is doing fine and living righteously in Chapel Hill, one of the cleanest, most livable, kicked-back towns in the United States and North Carolina more than holds its own, from the Blue Ridge mountains to the Atlantic ocean.
I’m not gonna start singing “I like calling North Carolina home” at this point, however. You’d have to have the mentality of Mildred the Bear to think that North Carolina isn’t a prime time candidate for some type of nuke accident or that the Wilmington 10 trial won’t go down in U.S. history as anything more than a mockery of justice. But what it is, is what it is, and that’s what you have to deal with anywhere you call home.