This perfect September air has brought me home, to California. I wake up and smell eucalyptus and beach fog, cool mornings and warm days. I see, in my mind, the house I loved. It stood out among all of the stucco pre-orders: it was a ranch home. The kind on which they modeled the pre-fab ranch homes — from about 1949/50. And it was the helm of an actual ranch. The land my house stood on was part of that ranch — the former orange groves. It, the house I loved, had a huge, non-linear yard with palm trees and gorgeous, some other fairytale trees — I have no idea what they were, but they were old growth and now that I know Hollywood Hills and Laurel Canyon, that was what was in their yard. The rest of our yards were leveled of anything that deviated from the plot. There was no natural growth as far as the eye could see. Everything was planted.

The year my family moved in, so did about 10,000 other Rockwell families straight from engineering grad schools with 3.5 kids in tow and in obvious need of housing, schools, paved roads. The entire county underwent master planning. But the small corner I lived in, Villa Park, somehow escaped some of that transformation — at least for a while. It wasn’t until my first grade year that shoes were actually required at school. And somehow this coincided with the last time I saw a kid dropped off for class on horseback. And that was the year the mission style buildings on campus were condemned in favor of ready-builts and only the girl scouts and the 6th graders were allowed in the old building; the former for weekly meetings, the latter for the annual haunted house. Everything but that house, my favorite house, was near extinction: only a remnant of groves stood to bathe us with blossoms in the spring, sticky teeth from gellied Sunkists at Christmas and perfect packed crates all winter long.
Village Park Orchards
I thought nothing of all of this at the time. I grew up, the town became a suburb, and I became boy obsessed, LA obsessed, Europe obsessed and then East-Coast obsessed. I didn’t much think about Orange County except to make fun of it as a colossal human engineering project gone wrong.

My sister is the last of my five siblings to live in California. She called last week and told me she is moving to Seattle: her husband got a better offer. So they are off. They just spent five years building a gorgeous self-as-architect home. Two years in getting the permits alone. Not one tree is yet planted in her own backyard and they’re off to a place where we have zero roots. The news threw me.

And it hit me like a ton of bricks: we’re all migrant workers. We’re just middle class about it.

We have commutes over freeways, through subway lines, crossing grand overpasses to get to work and back vs. those who traverse the Rio Grande loaded with u-boats and shotguns or squirrel small bills in large envelopes to family back in Kazakhstan. But the fact is: we move. We move for the promise of better money, jobs, love, whatever. We move just as those in sepia-toned-photographed tent cities did. We just do it in a way that we think is more stable, more grounded and rooted than those photographs of old. We aspire to and build manorial estates to pass on to loved ones, generation to generation, but instead we (those of us who can afford to) pass these homes on to our portfolios. We liquidate them. We don’t have homes, we have houses.

But where does that leave us?

Most people of my childhood culture move back to Utah. A no-brainer pull for like-minded people — and completely understandable in this age of constant migration. And Utah is where I too went for holidays with turkeys and distant relations. And it is where I was launched as an adult. It is the place my mother left with her husband and babies in hopes of something better. It is both base and flight for my family. But not for me.

When I was 2 my family moved from Rockwell land to a largely Jewish neighborhood outside of Princeton, New Jersey. It was one of my father’s quests for a better job. We weren’t there for very long. My mother and our dog both hated it. The dog’s name was “Stranger.” (My parents aren’t the most intimate of people.) And the story goes that Stranger ran away. He ran away and was found in Pennsylvania, hit by a car. He was traveling west. Family lore is that he was going home — smelling his way back. I’m surprised my mother wasn’t with him.

In short order we moved “back west” to Rockwell land so we could continue our childhoods in a place my mother was more comfortable. But a place she would eventually leave as well. This was not home for her and my father. It was a place they lived to raise us. And they were each raised in places that were also left, abandoned by all members of their families. And now, in perfect symbolism, they live on an airstrip in a retirement community called Independence in Oregon. They have hangar instead of a garage. It’s perfect: they can leave all of the time.

Airship Oranges

There was never a home.

There’s much talk among us of the NECSC of tribal affiliations — finding “our” people, a match in mind and temperament and spirit. A family. Home. And what we have has been a family for many of us. And this match of the interior selves, combined with background, has largely been more than enough to call this place, New York, the Northeast, a home.

But what do I do with days like today where some instinctual drive places me in Stranger’s camp — hell-bent on getting back to where I can smell that I am home. And that is not here.

Geography, place, smells, the physicality of home — I tried moving back to California six years ago. I had to return: ghosts to find and/or exorcise — some say I was returning to the scene of the crime. Or maybe it was a smell I was after. I lasted just shy of a year. I lived back in Rockwell-land, but it had turned into “The OC.” The orange-packing plant (which happened to be the only all wooden plant and conveyor belt in the nation, circa 1910 — all cogs, all wheels, all gears, all screws, all wooden) where I was tossed many a perfect orange as I walked home from junior high, was torn down to make room for monster “homes” built five feet apart.

Have One

We were living at my parents’ house — they had gone on their retirement motorhome hit-the-open-road fieldtrip for 6 months. (They said they’d be gone six months. My mother, of course, not telling my father how much she dreaded motorhomes until they were one month into my father’s dream road trip… thank god it was just a road trip: he had wanted to build a sailboat.) So my parents pulled out of the driveway in said motorized home, sailed down the street, and banked a left. We waved, popped open the trunk of the great Jaguar, and transformed the house into our own in under 5 minutes. Slipcovers, odds and ends, things to make the oh-so-not-our-style house somehow, our home. We were living the Target dream. And I was calling it home.

But it wasn’t. We moved there in October, in time for Halloween and the haunted house — which I took little Ian to, much to his delight. He was dressed as an alien. And I, a witch. It was obvious how we were feeling.


But that other house was still there: the house that felt like home even though I had never lived there. And now was my chance to see this place from the inside-out. I took Ian trick-or-treating. We, witch and alien, got in the door via requesting a drink of water. And, long story short, I told them I always had admired their home, the trees, its difference from anything else around it, how the street had to bend to accommodate the yard, how they still lived in it. They were warm and pleasant and had no idea what I was talking about. I thanked them and we left.

Ian was attending the same school I had as a child. And I had volunteered to teach Ian’s monthly third-grade art history lesson. The mission building, still condemned, was now where the art teachers stored their supplies — amidst cauldrons and old witch hats. It was January now — we were two months into the adventure and I was feeling quite homesick — for New York. I was rifling through the prints of obvious and well-known artists from the past four or five centuries, trying to find something to connect to enough to teach, but feeling rather out of sorts and disconnected from anyone. And then, I flipped by a tree. A tree I immediately recognized. It was a print of a tree that my dear friend Brian Martin, aka fabulous Brian, had hanging on his wall. It was a tree he had drawn. There, in the condemned mission building in the OC three hundred lightyears away from New York, there was Brian’s tree. And I was home.

Brian's Tree

I am back in New York and I’m not moving. I am here for the people and hope that maybe I will grow so accustomed to the river’s edge where I walk Miss Sophie, with its views of the bridges and the city, that it will deepen like the eucalyptus into my psyche. Maybe the bakery I go to ’round the corner, the chocolate store, the feel of a hot summer evening? Will these things, sensations, rituals be enough to actually feel like home? Is it home for Ian even if it may not be for me? Can this maybe be my home if I partake of these things enough? Or would such a term applied to such an alien landscape only turn both of us back into the strangers of Halloween, smelling our way someplace else?

I am buying my first house, the one I have been going to for years up in the Berkshires. Largely I am buying it ’cause I can’t stand not to. The owner wants to sell and the thought of not having that drive up the dirt road, past the river, through the trees to see the fieldstone fireplace leaves me feeling empty, bereft. I am buying it because finally, something — the feel of those trees, the lay of the hills, the winding road and passing meadow — these are beginning to ride with me into my first waking thoughts. Coming to me at random times of the day. They are seeding deep in my subconscious and are, I feel, becoming part of me. And this is what it is, for me, to have and be “home.”

I think.

River house

I play this game with myself, on occasion, and ask where is it I would be buried. If I went suddenly and opted out of cremation, where would I go into the ground? Right now, at this moment in late September, when it smells like California, the only place that feels like home remains that house I never lived in and only once visited. That house so unlike anything else around it. The house of authenticity, built for a purpose that was tied to the ground. A home which the people did not leave, sell, or abandon. And today, that is where I would go. I would want to be rooted in the right earth. It is on Lincoln Road, in California.

20 responses to “Home”

  1. Lane says:

    This is a funny post following my molotov to Ruben about California Brain Rot.

    It is so wierd that so many people on this site have this connection to Utah but wern’t raised there. Growing up there, all anyone every wanted to do was to move to California.

    Sweet sweet California.

  2. Dave says:

    When I lived in the dorms my first year of college (in Utah, where else), they had assigned roommates based on geography. New Mexico paired with Arizona, Oregon with Washington, Texas with some Midwestern state. And Utah with California.

  3. slade says:

    Perhaps Utah is not only holds the Harvard of the West but it is also the Claifornia of the Rockies?

  4. Lisa T. says:

    “Harvard of the West”??

    I thought that was Stanford.

    btw, I am born, bred, tried, and true Southern California. Inland Empire, to be exact, for those who *know*. It’s not all meth houses and mullets. What it is, especially, and so, so nostalgically, is orange groves and eucalyptus trees and cold desert winter winds and hot, hot, smoggy summers and tans made with baby oil and single story, sprawling school buildings. It’s hard to leave, really.

  5. PB says:

    I think about a sense of place, “home” as you call it, all the time because we moved constantly when I was a kid (ironically CA was one of the places I lived). Unlike my parents, my husband and many of my friends, the West was a concept more than a connection. It was not until I moved to Cambridge, MA that I reached down and touched the earth in quasi- Brigham manner and thought, this is my place. It is interesting to read this post because it acknowledges both the Scarlet Ohara sense about “my” land and where I was born with the hope that place can also be developed, that one might happen upon the perfect fit whether born to it or not. Welcome Slade, great post.

  6. andrea says:

    Bacon and I are both originally from…California! And we just bought a mountain house in…Utah! We can have a GreatWhatsit summit up there. Hole up and write that manifesto you’ve had kicking around in your brain.

    Anyway, sorry BYUers…Stanford is the Harvard of the West.

  7. Lisa Parrish says:

    Like PB, I too was moved all over the place as a child (and also lived for a few years in California). Though we ended up back in the same southern town where I was born, and though I went to all four years of high school there and my parents still live there, it doesn’t feel quite like “home.”

    In fact, I have a hard time knowing where I’m from at all, as both my parents are Southerners, with pronounced accents, and my family heritage comprises many of the stereotypes that the term implies: my great-grandfather was in the KKK; my cousins are blue-collar, Bud-drinking, casually racist Bush-lovers; everyone in the extended family, without exception, has a personal relationship with Jesus. This is my heritage, but where is my home? It’s a weird feeling sometimes not to know.

  8. slade says:

    Ian says he lives in Brooklyn. He doesn’t say he is from Brooklyn.
    I say that too. I am not sure i like the transience in that. We’re solid but the ground we’re on can move.

    i close in january on what feels like that “fit”.
    but there aren’t any eucalyptus.

    thanks for all of your comments — its nice to be up!

  9. Lisa Tremain says:

    Lisa P., I am so comforted by the fact that someone else besides me has Bud-drinking Bush-loving casually-racist extended family. And mine are from…California!!

    Yours in family rebellion and leftist leanings,
    Lisa T.

  10. slade says:

    And Lisa T — yes the dessert winds carrying in blossoms from the east and sweaty smells of ocean from the west are hard to leave.

    And lol re: califronia with house in Utah.
    let’s do have a summit. a fly-fishing while wearing baby-oil summit

  11. lefty says:

    to use one of your own adjectives, karen, this is “lovely.” i am glad to read that california still occupies some place in your psyche. as an easterner who moved to OC at 10, left at 23 and now is the only member of my family to live in california, albeit san francisco, at 41, i completely understand the desperate ambivilance of being a californian. do you remember the regard we held OC in as teens? i remember standing on the balboa pier once, thinking about how sad i felt for everyone not fortunate enough to live in orange county. i never wanted to leave. even now, having discovered too late that i’m a new yorker who’s never lived in new york, i keep little pieces of OC protected in the back of my mind, or even, to be completely schmaltzy (which you know i am), my heart. and you’re absolutely right — it’s the smell. it’s breathing in the dry air – we don’t have it in SF, so we drive to san jose for that fix — which, for me at least, smells like little league (when mixed with my dad’s cigarette smoke), 9th grade parties, getting off the bus by fred’s house after a trip to the beach, and lying on the ground by the jungle gym at villa park elementary, looking up at the sky, one day after we’d taken a walk from your parents’ house. it’s the smell of longing, of nostalgia, of casual summers. weird thing is — that’s what brooklyn & the berkshires are going to smell like for ian someday.

  12. slade says:

    so my question is: can it mean home if only one generation has the same sense of home-smell? Isn’t there something to seeing notches in a tree that were carved by your mother’s mother? i know this is how we all are _now_ but i wonder if it takes a toll on us. our sense of identity, belonging, groundedness, being tied-in to at least _soemthing_?

    is this perhaps why people turn to religiion in our country for a sense of depth and belonging?

    i prefer to turn to the ground.
    perhaps we are all like stranger and need to go home to really feel like we are home/have a home…??

    or this could be a mid-life, NY’er’s crisis.

  13. Lisa Parrish says:

    Lisa T., I believe you and me are kin.

  14. Lane says:

    That “Harvard of the west thing is SO F***IN’ Irritating! Stanford yeah, U Cal yeah, UCLA, Hell I’d even put U dub, ASU and U of A up against that pretentious institution.

    Spoken like a Ute.

  15. Slade says:

    A friend emailed about the essay and said she wondered if all of our parents moved to the burbs hoping to be better parents than their parents were. That there was this promise of a controlled environment, people just like them — a better way to raise kids. I’m certain that’s why my parents did it.

    Also why my parents sent us to church eventhough they did not go themselves. My father was an atheist.

    In the end, people raise kids not a place or a church. And this is what our generation of parenting and geographical choices reflects perhaps.

    And for those of you that moved so much, i am certain your families had to be closer in some ways, for better or for worse??

  16. Slade says:

    and yeah the harvard of the west thing is super arrogant and super F***IN’ irritating.
    remarkable really.

  17. bacon says:

    Cal State Long Beach has always been for my parents and me, and still is, the obvious Harvard of the West, you effite East Coast, pampered, class-climbing snobs.

  18. lefty says:

    so yesterday, while my little boy was at saxaphone practice, i took my dog for a walk up to mount davidson — you know, where the big cross is. dirty harry took down his prey there, i think. we walked up through the eucalyptus trees, out onto some rocks, and sat there, looking out at the city, the bay, marin, the east bay. and by god, the sun was actually shimmering off the water. it’s been 70 degrees here lately, beautifully sunny. and though i’m not a big fan of summer happening in the fall, i had to remind myself, as we stood there, that when you sift through all the crap, there are reasons to be in california.

  19. Anonymous says:

    baby name bracelet…