Home, according to the old saying, is where the heart is. But in my case, for most of my life, I had multiple homes—so many, in fact, that I’m unable to remember most of them clearly. So where is my heart? Oddly the answer, despite the seeming complexity of the question, is not at all in doubt. My heart is here, where I live now, and where I have lived for the past twenty-one years, the happiest and most fulfilling of my life.
That answer has become vividly clear in recent weeks. Ruth and I have begun to make plans to relocate from our secluded retreat in the foothills of the Black Mountains of Western North Carolina to the bustling city of Asheville, forty-five miles away, where she works as a regional long-term care ombudsman representing the rights and interests of the residents of nursing homes and other elder-care facilities. Right now her travel-time amounts to a grueling, and expensive, one hour each way over dangerous highways and back roads. Moving would reduce that commute to a matter of minutes. And the work itself, while challenging, has proved the most meaningful and fulfilling of her distinguished career and she needs to continue it, both for her sake and for the sakes of those vulnerable folks whom she serves.
I recognize this necessity and yet I find myself perversely inclined to resist it too, because it threatens the comfort and security of the first and only permanent, wholly satisfactory home I have ever had. Allow me to explain: My early life was nomadic; my father was a Methodist minister, and though the practice may seem strange in this more enlightened day and time, ministers of that denomination, in that far-off age, were expected to remain serving a given church only for limited terms, usually four years or so. I suppose the arrangement was intended to forestall what was thought to be the pernicious system pursued by other denominations, which often resulted in pastorates of long and eventually unhealthy durations. So my memories of childhood are of painful and all-too-frequent disruptions of neighborhoods, friendships, schools and congregations and of endlessly repeated moves from one parsonage to another and from one town or city to another. It should also be said that congregations in those days could, and did, range from the warm and welcoming to the indifferent and even the overtly hostile.
But the worst of the system, in my youthful eyes, were the parsonages. My mother was a painstaking housekeeper, and she believed it was her duty as a good minister’s wife, when moving to a new mission, to transmit to the incoming pastor and his family a perfectly scrubbed and gleaming parsonage. Of course one could only do so much to dress up a house which had been purchased as cheaply as possible to begin with and then allowed to deteriorate over subsequent years due to parsimonious funding by the congregation’s board of trustees. But in the days prior to our every move to a new appointment Mother would clean the house furiously and fiendishly lest the next occupants think poorly of her stewardship, only to find, when we entered the next parsonage, that the previous occupants had had no such compunctions. Some of my most painful memories are of watching her step across the threshold of a new home, if I may call it that, only to find it a perfect shambles. She would give way to wracking sobs of heartbreak. I did not weep, though once, upon stepping into a new parsonage, I was assaulted by hordes of fleas famished by their separation from the previous occupants’ dogs. In one parsonage, I won’t say where, once we settled in, we found that in winter large black rats would gather at the top of the basement stairs where some heat was available, and whenever any of us opened that door the rats would go bounding down the stairs going thumpety-thumpety-thump, a sound I can still hear in my aural memory. In yet another parsonage there was no bedroom to accommodate me at all, so I slept on a cot located in what had been a screened-in side porch now equipped with uninsulated plywood walls. Needless to say, my heart was not in those homes. Nor were they, any of them, in any sense, homes at all.
Experiences such as this conditioned me to regard our successive abodes as contingent, as temporary tortures to be tolerated in the hope (never to be realized) that we might one day be assigned to something finer. So, once liberated from the peonage that was my condition as a “preacher’s kid,” I foolishly hoped to set out on my own, find a vocation, and earn a living sufficient to provide me with the sort of warm and welcoming home that popular opinion and my own hopes suggested ought to be my due. Of course after graduating college my starting salary as a newspaper reporter would not permit this. So I rented the inevitable apartment—the first of many—and learned the sad lesson that a cubicle in a complex where one could hear the neighboring renter watching TV, playing LPs, pissing, farting, coughing or making love could scarcely be regarded as Home Sweet Home.
Then I got married, an experience better passed over here in silence, save to note that when we were at last able to purchase a house, my new wife dictated the choice and, once we took up residence, dictated every last decision concerning it as well as every last decision concerning me and my career. Very soon a home it was not; I shall refrain from characterizing it otherwise. Presently that marriage ended. This was in Arlington in Northern Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., where I had worked first as an urban planner and then as a lobbyist. Twenty years in the National Capital Area burned my technocratic ambitions to a crisp and I began to entertain thoughts of moving to a quieter and less intense domain to take up the work I had long thought myself best suited for—that of a writer.
That decision brought me at last to my first and real home, here on my mountainside at the edge of the Pisgah National Forest, surrounded by streams and by woods and hills that offer lovely views of the Southern Appalachian highlands, where I have lived since 1995, where I found and married my beloved Ruth, where I have published five novels and one work of history, and where I have been not just happy and but thoroughly content.
But life demands change. It regards not the wishes of one’s secret heart, nor should it. One is not one; one is but half of the two of a marriage, and of a love affair that burns as brightly now as it did at the beginning. Our hearts, like our fates, are linked. We face the necessity of moving from our cherished home to a more suitable setting in or near the city. Practicality must trump emotion. It hurts us both, but I hope I do not sound too selfish when I suggest that the pain may be different—I do not say worse—for me than for Ruth because this place has been my first and only experience of a true home. I can’t speak for her in that regard; she did live for most of her prior life in one place if not in one house, and that place, the charming city of Salida in Central Colorado, was, and remains, one of the most beautiful in America. Her previous family life, if somewhat turbulent, was, and is, close and loving. Perhaps I’m wrong but I think she has a stronger sense of home than I do, and I think it is one of the foundations of her life. I hope we can both soon reclaim the sense of home that is so profound a need in us.