January 9, 2023

What Place Do You Call Home?

Every July since my nine-year-old was born, I’ve taken my tiny family of three back to my hometown, Montreal, for a few months. Last summer we hadn’t been back since she was six (pandemic and all) but we immediately fell back into old rhythms (long dinners with my parents, endless coffee dates with my oldest friends, summer camps in French) and new rhythms: we let Noa do much more on her own than she can in L.A., where we live. She’d walk across the street for croissants, down to the stationery store to browse, all the way to my parents’ condo by herself.

One night, close to 10 p.m., on our way home from yet another supper en famille, she wanted to play in the park across the street from our rented house.

Sure, I said, and she slipped off into the night to climb the jungle gym.

I took out the compost through the basement door. Tuesday: compost; Wednesday: recycling; Friday: garbage. A city at work. Communal agreements. Piles on the curb. It was so quiet outside, so calm. I could live like this, I thought.

It took Noa a little too long to come back. Panic rose in me and I yelled out the front door for her to return. Coming! she yelled back. Nothing had happened; my mind had just flown off in fear for a moment. She was perfectly safe. She walked in the door, I sent her up to shower, and I thought of how many versions of a life one person can choose.

***

Like so many of us, the question of home rings more loudly over the summer and after Christmas because I return to where I am from (I think only of Didion’s Where I Was From). Some part of me belongs most comfortably in Montreal — the two languages, the accents, the country itself — yet also feels an uncomfortable level of dissonance whenever I return.

For years — decades, really — everything felt claustrophobic and all too familiar: the faces, the parties, the stories. Provincial is what we all said to each other as we set off for New York and London and Berlin and Johannesburg. We lunged for our twenties and thirties in bigger places that could hold so much more of who we wanted to be. Places that would allow us to grow beyond the selves our city could hold or witness.

After college, I imagined myself nowhere other than New York, and for the 12 years I lived there, that vision never faltered. Its home-ness, its rightness, was not questioned. It didn’t even change when my husband and I moved to Vienna, Austria, when I was 34 and spent the whole first year across the ocean wishing I was back in New York. I saw my life abroad as some sort of weird interlude, not the very truth of it. It took ages to settle in, to accept that the real thing — my real life, not the imagined thing I’d left behind — was quite good. I didn’t know then that I’d never go back to being that young woman who only ever wanted to live in Brooklyn.

Last summer I went back to New York for the first time in five years, and there it was: my old life, in those same streets, and yet I didn’t feel at home, not at all, even though it is still where I’ve spent the biggest swath of my adulthood. I peeked into my dilapidated apartment building with my best friends and it all felt like so long ago. A friend who lived through that period saw the pictures of me outside that door — the one I pushed open for nine of the 12 years I lived there — with nothing but a tote bag on my shoulder, and she said it made those years — our harrowing, hilarious twenties and early thirties, when we had nothing but the bags on our backs and the imagined weight of the worlds on our shoulders — come rushing back. Who were those people? What were they running after?

***

Every time I go home to Montreal (or, now, New York), I see how far my life has traveled from that city of my childhood and the other of my young adulthood. I say that not with any hint of snobbery or condescension. I spend most of our time wishing we did live in Montreal: the simplicity of it all feels spectacularly easy and sane after braving the traffic and freeways of L.A., the weekly American mass shootings, the ripping away of reproductive rights. The Canadian pace is slower, calmer. The summer is so green and lush. People sit out on terrasses and eat and drink. A friend once said, Montreal is full of Type B people, and I find this both funny and maybe true? And was also perhaps why at 18 I was desperate to leave?

What am I getting at here? Perhaps it is this: that “home” now feels like a fractured reality — many cities on a pie chart, each an incomplete sliver of a whole. Nothing substantial enough to outweigh the other parts.

This is where I should default to the sappy: home is wherever the heart is, or home is wherever you [cue: husband, daughter] are, a roaming (roving?) entity. But that’s not what I’m searching for.

Yes, Montreal will always be where I am from: its frigid winters and terrible drivers and Franglish are in my bones. But if I am now talking about a self in a place, and I am unwilling to resort to the idea of family as home, then what? Can I accept that I will never again find The One Place that feels absolutely right? Where I am my most complete, whole, integrated self? Does such a thing exist?

That home will be drinking wine with my oldest girlfriends while our daughters, who barely know each other, play together like sisters in a park from our own childhood? That home will be sitting on a beach in L.A. with friends who will only ever know the adult versions of each other, but feel deeply, soulfully connected nonetheless? That it will be those walks along Smith Street in Brooklyn, coffee in hand, tote bag on shoulder? The number 13 bus in Vienna, the F train in Brooklyn, the Atwater stop in Montreal? That home will have to be all of it and none of it?

How about you? Do you have one or many places that you call home?

Abigail Rasminsky is a writer, editor and teacher, based in Los Angeles but currently living in Cambridge, England. She teaches creative writing at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and writes the weekly newsletter, People + Bodies. She has also written for Cup of Jo about beauty, marriage, teenagers, loss, and only children.

P.S. Home as a haven, and where would you like to raise your kids?

(Photo by Kristine Weilert/Stocksy.)

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