A light breeze swept strands of hair across my face as I sat on the beach of Lake Michigan. Memories of standing beside my dad on a lakeshore pier floated in, too; clusters of men waiting silently—tackle boxes and pails at their feet, cigarettes glowing between their fingertips—watching for fishing poles to arc and listening for the jangle of bells. They’d delight in my jumping up and down when, unknown to me, they tripped the tiny bells on their lines that signaled a catch.
The memory was strong, more than fifty years later, when I returned recently to my birthplace, Chicago. This time, I’d walked just five minutes from my son Matthew and daughter-in-law Jenn’s apartment on Chicago’s north side to once again view the lake’s edge. Although no one was fishing at this spot, I kept expecting to hear tinkling bells.
My parents and I left Chicago for a small, Southern Illinois town (population 300) when I was ten years old, and I’ve been back only a handful of times since then. Now I live on Lopez Island, WA, and I consider the Pacific Northwest my true home. Yet, there’s been something familiar, home-like, whenever I’ve returned—the way Chicagoans stretch their As when they talk, the citizens’ unwavering support of the underdog Cubs and Bears, the nods and smiles of strangers I pass on the street—and I noticed it even more on this visit.
Those noticings got me thinking about the idea of home.
This isn’t the first time I’ve pondered the word. As is true for nearly every writer I’ve ever talked writing with, the meaning of home shows up in my own free writes, essay drafts, poems, and memoir. And here it is again as I try to make sense of how, so far from my small, rural, island home in the rain shadow of the Olympics, I feel at home on the concrete sidewalks, in the shadows of skyscrapers, scanning the teal blue lake ruffled by the wind.
It’s logical enough to conclude that, as the expression goes, “home is where the heart is.” During this latest visit to Chicago, all of my immediate family (my deepest heart connections) was together in the city of my birth. A sense of hometown pride stirred on the Chicago River boat tour and during a visit to the Chicago History Museum.
New thoughts about home surfaced, though, when I attended Matthew and Jenn’s Mennonite church. That particular Sunday, the service focused on United Nations’ World Refugee Day. Observed on June 20 each year, this event honors the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children forced to flee their homelands under threat of persecution, conflict and violence. This congregation knows a bit about such threats—many of its members fled Cambodia, Latin America, Nepal, Bhutan, Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. I can’t begin to understand what home means to them.
I’ve been fortunate to move freely in search of home, responding to the sense of true home that I first recognized on a visit to Salt Lake City. There, snow-capped peaks of the Wasatch and Oquirrh ranges block the horizon and encircle the city’s downtown and crisp the air, their distant, icy coolness reaching the boulevards. Inexplicably, my Midwest heart felt the magnetic pull of mountains. Their force tugged again as my husband and I, ready to return to school, chose Seattle—surrounded by the Cascades and the Olympics—over Boston and Washington, DC. Years later, it was the spicy scent of ceanothus, a shiny green shrub that colonizes after forest fires, that confirmed my geography of home in the Pacific Northwest. It was as if “home” chose me. Thinking of the refugees relocated to Chicago, I wonder how, or if, they feel at home in a place not of their choosing, far from the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and connections of their homelands.
As I boarded the ferry for the final leg of my journey “home” from my Chicago birthplace, Mt. Baker and the Salish Sea shimmered as the sun set. I know how blessed I am to call this place home.