When You Can't Go Home Again

Hiraeth – (hi-raeth)
(n) A deep, wistful, nostalgic sense of longing for home; a home that is no longer or perhaps never was. A yearning and wistful grief for people and things long gone.

Our family home at 355 Poplar Avenue is not just a house, it is a living thing.

In the late 50s, my newly-married parents returned to their hometown of Indiana, PA, from my father’s stint in the Navy. With my oldest brother--then a baby--in tow, they bought a small piece of land a hundred yards from my grandmother’s house. Over the next year, with the help of my father’s Uncle Jake, they designed and built a beautiful, simple, three-bedroom ranch home. They filled it with enumerable personal touches, from knotty pine paneling to custom-made furniture like a picnic bench kitchen table and wagon-wheel chandeliers. They painted the outside fire engine red, the perfect color for a house that would eventually be filled with three sons. It was not just a labor of love, but a living entity that brought great pride to my parents, and enveloped and defined each of us. We grew up in that home and that town, and could not imagine another story.

As my brothers and I grew up, moved out, married, and had families of our own, the role of the house changed, from a corral containing the daily stampede to the more occasional landing spot for grandkids and holiday celebrations. Christmas there was especially something to behold, with a perfectly lit Christmas tree and a village of antique small lead figurines which I’m sure came to life at night when all were asleep. All of us—my brothers, our wives, our kids--loved the home and the people who dwelt in it. We loved waking up on Christmas morning and waiting in the hallway until everyone was ready to gather around the tree. We loved hanging out in the kitchen, eating cookies and playing board games or cards. The boys loved disappearing to the basement to play Ping-Pong and talk about things they didn’t want adults to hear. Being at our house at 355 Poplar Avenue was as comforting and familiar as wrapping yourself in your softest blanket and taking a post-dinner nap as the ticking clocks lulled you to sleep. Which is what we often did.

This year, for the first time, the house sat empty on Christmas.

My parents are still with us, but they are aging. Mom can barely see, and Dad is moving pretty slow. It takes them a long time to do the simplest tasks, and they are increasingly aware of their limitations. We realized a year ago at Thanksgiving that they would not be able to host holidays much longer. This year it became obvious that we needed to make other plans. So for Christmas, we gathered at my brother’s house in Monroeville, an hour down the road. He and his wife did yeoman’s work preparing and hosting us all. My parents joined us, and seemed to enjoy themselves. In many ways it was the same – we opened presents, read the Christmas story, ate copious amounts of food, and played games. We high-fived and danced ridiculous jigs when the Steelers pulled out a dramatic last-minute victory. We used every bed, every blanket, and every spot on the floor to accommodate ten of us under one roof. We ate well, laughed well, and loved well. All things considered, it was a great Christmas, and the inaugural Monroeville holiday was a success. I’m sure we’ll do it again.

But there is a truth we all must reckon with--one we each must deal with in our own way: Things will never be the same. The Anderson homestead has lost its patronage, hosted its final holiday. We will be there again, surely, but never in the same way, for days at a time, celebrating together. And someday in the not-too-distant future (an unimaginable one, honestly), another family will come to occupy it. The decor will change, the furniture will be sold off, the Christmas decorations will likely trend towards the maudlin. And goodness, who knows what color will be chosen as replacement for the fire engine red? Most strangely, the sounds that fill it will be of an alien clan, a band of imposters and squatters. The house will hardly know what to make of it. Nor will we. Changes like these bring emotions that never resolve.

The hiraeth each of us felt this Christmas, though unspoken, will try to find its peace in the warm and wonderful memories of the home where our family was made.