I’ve been thinking a lot about home recently. Maybe that’s because I’ve been spending quarantine in what was once my childhood bedroom, staring at a 12-foot-long photo-realistic painting of a white stallion in mid-gallop. Beneath it is a credenza haphazardly painted to look “distressed,” topped with three coffee-table books, all of which advertise different visual histories of Ireland. Glass bedside tables flank an oversize headboard in the shape of a tiara, underneath which a scratchy white comforter covers a prop mattress that offers the distinct experience of sleeping on a slab of concrete. Needless to say, I didn’t decorate this room. None of the items belong to me. In fact, the space isn’t even meant to be lived in. I’ve been staying in a staged house, the house where I grew up, since mid-March.
The backstory: My parents decided to sell our home about six months ago. It was time, they said. The house required too much upkeep for two people to manage. Once on the market it sold quickly, to their surprise and satisfaction—purchased by a family with kids, who I hoped would love it as fiercely as my brother and I do. Saying goodbye was difficult. We moved all our things out, our memories packed into boxes and trunks to be carted off to condos, apartments, and storage units across the country. I felt sad. I felt nostalgic. I made the mistake of walking through each room sobbing, remembering what each space had meant to me, what firsts and lasts happened beyond each door. I took my time and said goodbye.
But then…COVID-19 changed everything. As quickly as the home sold, the deal fell through, and suddenly my family and I were back within its walls. The house, staged for optimal selling value, is still in its shiny, real-estate packaging, with price tag–bearing furniture thrown together by what appears to be an interior design student attempting a half-hearted final project. It looks like the sale section of a home store you pass on the street but never go into. Within days, my dogs (one of which is a rambunctious puppy whose favorite snack is chairs) had managed to pee on every white rug (all of which we are eventually supposed to return in perfect condition). We quickly boycotted the too-stiff-to-sit-on white furniture (opting instead for pillows on the floor). And as for the over-the-top chandeliers in every room that didn’t actually work? My dad was on a ladder trying to take them down after a week.
So as I sit within the walls of a space I no longer recognize, encouraged to enjoy home and the borrowed time spent in it more than ever, I can’t help but think about what exactly home means. I’ve always defined it by what’s inside: the leather armchair in the living room that my brother and I carved our names into as kids; the canopy bed I dreamed of as a child, an off-brand version of which I finally received for my seventh Christmas; the coffeepot that always lived in the same corner of the kitchen. Home is the nooks and scratches and paint chips.
But. What if it’s not? I was raised in Los Angeles in a Spanish-style house on a quiet street shaded by oak trees and privilege. I could recognize the neighborhood dogs by name and leash color, and when the mailman mixed up packages, neighbors dropped them off on their proper porches, usually with a smiley-face note. My childhood home nurtured and cared for me. It let me swim in its backyard grass, turning individual blades into villages, and offered up its wide street for parallel parking practice. It watched me come and go for years, standing steady through my movements and welcoming me back, letting me stretch and grow and wilt as I stumbled through years of bad haircuts and neuroticism.
All of those quirks, the quirks I define as home, are still there. The house doesn’t look like where I grew up. It doesn’t even look related. But the walls are still the same. It creaks in the same way when you creep up the stairs at night. The air conditioner still rattles; the locks still stick. My favorite hand-painted tiles still line the bathroom sinks. So as the days stretch on and time morphs into something unrecognizable, now defined only by the sun’s placement in the sky, I find myself wondering if maybe home is a feeling. Maybe it feels like being safe and warm and sometimes frustrated, but always loved.
I’m learning that home doesn’t have to look a certain way. It doesn’t have to always stay the same. So stallion painting or not, I’m home. I’m safe. I’m munching on my mom’s chocolate chip banana bread while sitting on snow white kitchen stools that actually aren’t so bad, next to my family, spending more time together than we have in years. And in the end, what else really matters? Perhaps home is rooted in those who root us.