(The house on Clarence Avenue in Berwyn, Illinois)
I didn’t find it until I was 32 years old, but I was 37 years old before I could officially call it my own.
I used to underestimate the idea of home, and never understood its true power. When I was younger, I didn’t have a choice in where I called home. It was chosen for me by my parents. After my four sets of great-grandparents left Europe, they all eventually settled right outside of Chicago, Illinois, except for one set, my dad’s mother’s parents, who decided on Southern Tennessee. Eventually my dad’s mom met my grandpa, and they moved to Illinois as well, and my grandma left her parents behind in Southern Tennessee. At that point, all my relatives were gathered around Chicago like a winter fire.
The first place I remember as home was an apartment in Berwyn, Illinois. When I was 5 years old, my parents bought our first house on Clarence Avenue in Berwyn. This was the house I grew up in until my parents decided to move when I was 14.
Illinois was the place where I learned about independence. When I was 9 years old, at the start of 4th grade, I no longer had to go to daycare after school or my Grandma Busha’s house for the summer. My parents decided I could start staying home by myself. My school was only two blocks from my house, so it was a quick 5 minute walk. After school I always had some sporting practice or game. I played softball, basketball, and was a cheerleader.
My parents were normally gone for 12 hours a day leaving for work at 6:30 a.m. and returning home again at 6 p.m. I had time to have adventures, play sports, read and write. One of my favorite pastimes was creating song lyrics about my cat Rocky and my dog Lady, singing them into a microphone and recording them on a cassette tape. It was these moments of getting myself to school and home from school, and having free reign to do whatever I wanted when my parents weren’t around that gave me the confidence as an adult to go out on my own. I was also an only child who had a lot of time to myself, so I always enjoyed my own company and doing things on my own.
In the summers, as soon as my parents left for work, I did my chores around the house and ate breakfast, which was normally something along the lines of Cocoa Pebbles, then I would ride my bike to the baseball field at St. Mary of Celle. The kids from the neighborhood and my Little League team would meet and play baseball. We would also meet at Lincoln Junior High School and play basketball on the outdoor courts and 16 inch softball in the open lot next to the school. Some days we mixed it up and went to the Maple Pool to go swimming. Other days we just rode our bikes all over the town.
At that point when I was younger, Illinois fit me perfectly. It was all I had ever known.
The summer before I was starting high school my parents informed me we were moving to Tennessee. Both of my parents wanted a change of pace from the hectic city life of living right outside Chicago. Two years earlier my dad’s parents permanently moved to Tennessee. They had a summer house there, but decided to move full-time once they both retired. My dad thought it sounded like a great idea as well. He would have access to fishing full-time, the drive home from work would be 20 minutes not hours, and nature would be more abundant and accessible.
I see the appeal of the slower-paced life now that I am not 14 years old. Even so, in the 22 years I lived there, Tennessee never felt like home. My parents moved to a small town in Southern Tennessee. The high school started in 10th grade, and there were two junior highs that housed the 7th, 8th and 9th graders. I was greeted at my new junior high school with white students who wanted to stage a walk-out because there were black students at the school. I was also greeted by “mean girls” who hung out in packs, and they seemed to hunt that way.
I will say I learned the most important lesson of my life in Tennessee. When I was 14 years old, I was jolted out of being self-absorbed. I guess I was like a typical wounded teenage girl. I sauntered around like I was special, I caused drama, and I didn’t necessarily care if I hurt people. When I moved to Tennessee and I was the new girl, there was no room for this attitude. I went from being a popular girl and a great athlete to being nothing. Mixed with the un-hospitality I received from the mean girl welcoming committee, I crumbled. But from this crumbling, it triggered empathy. I started to see people outside of myself and how they were affected by me and their surroundings. I realized that everyone wanted to be loved and accepted, and everyone wanted to feel special. It was the single most important lesson I have learned to date.
When I did get to high school, it was better, but I still couldn’t wait to get out of the small town. In Illinois, I had the option of being able to ride my bike, take the bus or walk to wherever I wanted to. I had easy access to friends and physical and mental stimulation. In Tennessee, everything and everyone was so far apart it made it impossible to do anything productive. The kids who had cars sat in parking lots and just drove around on rural roads listening to music.
Maybe my issue with high school had more to do with the fact that it was high school than the town it was in, but high school was my least favorite time of life. One positive was I knew there was more to life than what was in the walls of the school. I couldn’t wait to get to college. I knew I could find like-minded people, and break free from the oppressive town I was living in. Even dating wasn’t fun. I had nothing in common with the high school boys, especially high school boys who never saw a life past the boundaries of the county.
Of course I made friends in high school. But it is a strange to not feel like you ever belong. To feel alone even when you are surrounded by people. To feel even more alone because you are surrounded by people who just don’t understand you.
During senior year, I started requesting information from colleges in Louisiana, Maine, Florida, and North Carolina. When the pamphlets arrived, my dad guilted me into staying in Tennessee for school. He wasn’t ready for me to leave the state and he employed every tactic he could to keep me within the Tennessee borders. This may be the worst reason to ever attend a school, but I chose my university based on the fact that no one from my graduating class was going there, and it was 2 hours from where my parents lived. I figured it was far enough away to be able to breathe, but close enough to go home if I wanted to.
College was everything I had hoped and wanted it to be. The professors expanded my mind, the students were diverse, the freedom was palpable, and I was revived. To this day, some of my best memories happened while I was in college. But college still was just a distraction from the bigger issue: I didn’t belong in Tennessee. Yet, I still tried to force it to be my forever home. After I graduated college with my Master’s degree, I started living and working in Nashville, TN. I saved money, and I was able to start traveling more frequently.
One of my first joint trips with my mom was to Charleston, SC, and it was eye opening. I loved the vibe of Charleston. I loved that it was on the coast as well. One thing I discovered about myself was I loved the ocean. My mom actually talked to locals with me, and I was heavily leaning towards getting out of Tennessee. But, I got an interview for my first “adult” career as soon as we returned from our trip, and I ended up getting the job. Within the few first months of working, I decided to buy a house. In 2006, I moved to Springfield, TN in a corner lot house. Looking back, I think I felt Tennessee could feel like home if I had an actual home to call my own.
Over the next 5 years, I fell into a routine. I went to work, and I did my job to the best of my ability. I would go out with friends, and I had a few boyfriends and dated some. I played sports in an adult sports league, and I ran and traveled to other states to run races. I had my house: my supposed home.
But in 2011, I could no longer forget that I never belonged in Tennessee.