A year after we married, my husband and I took a road trip to the Outer Banks. Before we had kids in car seats spanning the back seat, we packed our cobalt blue VW up with our clothes, flip-flops, a bag’s worth of books each, a cooler of food, and drove south. I’d never taken a long American road trip before, and as we drove, I marveled at the changing landscape. We saw forest, farmland, city, marsh, beach, all in fluid motion through our window. Somewhere around Maryland, we saw the ruins of a farmhouse, its brick fireplace the only thing rising out of an overgrown field. During our stay, we visited Roanoke Island where the first, and then lost, colony was thought to have been and I stood under a five hundred year old tree at the edge of a cliff, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean. While beside me my American husband considered the history, I considered the mystery of America.
Even after living in the US longer than I lived in Spain, there are ways you can tell I didn’t grow up here. I have never-ending trouble with the prepositions “on” vs. “at,” I mix up expressions (I think people shouldn’t “talk behind someone’s ears” rather than their back), I can’t help but say Ay! when I get hurt (rather than “Ow!” or “Ouch!”), and I can’t seem to develop any sense of direction. Additionally, some typical American things — July Fourth fireworks, the Simpsons, the intentional geographic spread of families, mac and cheese — still leave me puzzled. Even so, the US has charmed me in a way that makes me think that somehow I would have come here anyway, somehow I will stay. This didn’t happen overnight, but rather quietly, over years, so that I didn’t suddenly realize I loved this country and really wanted to make my home here until I was at the edge of that ancient cliff.
Sometimes I feel I would recognize Spain with my eyes closed, that if I dropped into our old house in Madrid, as I do sometimes in dreams, I would know it by the yellow light across my eyelids, by its arid floral smell. I think my children, despite having spent so little time in Guatemala, would be able to say the same thing about their birth country, that they’d have some sense of that anchoring sentimiento. But I think, because this has been my own experience, that as much as we might dream of it, this wouldn’t be enough to satisfy the longing for the sense of home. If we were there, we’d dream of America and long for its particular touchstones not instead of, but in addition to.
One of the ugliest things that ever happened to me happened just a year or two after my mother and I moved to the US. A boy in my class cornered me and called me a spic and told me to “go back home” and I just stood there, back literally against the plaster wall, frozen before his hatefulness and his suggestion that I couldn’t claim a home here. I have wondered too many times, over the years since, whether he was right; I have turned the idea of home over and over in my mind, hoping to reconcile it. I do not want my children to be called out, to be challenged in this way, but, much as I would like to descend upon whoever hurts them with mother fury, they most likely still will be. And I want to know, how do I give my foreign-born, bilingual, bicultural children a sense of home someone else can’t shake? How do we achieve this as a multi-cultural family?
What if everything you’ve been taught about home is not enough? What if it is not just the town you were born in, grew up in? Where you bury your treasures, your dead? Your present address? What if it were wider than that? How would you give it to your children then?
For the first time, I am living in a place with no plans for leaving it. A few months ago, our family moved into the house we’d spent almost a year building. Though we’d lived elsewhere as a family, when we designed it and chose everything from the place of every door, to every light fixture, when we laid out the curve of the driveway and when we planted trees, we did it all with the intention that this be our home together. My husband works in real estate, he knows how often his American clients move and how easily one’s home can be made into someone else’s. But what I wanted was a house we could turn into an ancestral home: a house we willed into existence and filled with our children and dogs, and relatives and friends, and stories and traditions; a house that would linchpin our family over the years and shapes it takes.
Floor to ceiling in our upstairs hallway, we have what I’ve affectionately named our “origins gallery”: beautiful photographs of the places where each of us were born, Madrid, Pittsburgh, Guatemala City, Mazatenango. Already, our older daughter and son know which photograph belongs to them and will point them out to anyone who visits us. We have so many other artifacts of ourselves throughout the house, but this series of photographs, the way they’re hung all on one wall, is awe-inspiring.
Downstairs, in our kitchen, we have a decorative plaque my mother gave us that reads “Home is where your story begins.” Though I didn’t tell her this, I used to turn it over when she wasn’t visiting because it so bothered me to think that home, where my story began, was so far from where my story was taking place. Only after I started writing fiction did I reconsider it more favorably. The great novel doesn’t begin only with the facts of a birth; if you study it closely, you find in that first paragraph, the origin of the story, the first threads of fact, but also the first essence of its memories, dreams, plans.
When we moved, I placed the plaque on an antique American mission style sideboard, under a painting that reminds me of Spain, beside a carved jarro that we brought back after our first trip to Guatemala. There, for each of us, stands a representation of the wider sense of home we’ve needed to develop, one that includes both the places we’d know with our eyes closed and the places in which we have come to find ourselves.