New house. New horse. New bed. Everything smelled of fresh chops and chips.
One of the worn picture books that has survived the occasional cleaning purges is called The Quilt Story. It’s about a pioneer girl named Abigail who moves west, comforted amidst the upheaval by her mother’s quilt. It’s no surprise we’ve saved it—my mother does quilt, after all. But for my family, home has always been a state of motion. Say “home,” and I don’t picture a particular apartment or street, but a wash of sights and sounds, colors and smells. The lilies around the patio in Princeton where I learned to walk. The peppy, picket-fenced newness of Seattle suburbs. The red bricks and sweltering heat of Raleigh. The salty breeze of California. A mix of schools, Christmases, and the smell of airplanes. Abigail the pioneer girl only moved west once, I used to think grumpily. Lucky girl.
Where are you from?
It’s the most common question once you arrive at college. No one expects a lengthy answer. Elaborate, and eyes glaze over with polite boredom. And yet, that two-second sound bite is crucial. It rings with finality, creating a tidy box for others to place you in as they get to know an exhaustingly long list of people. Your state and your city become a part of your identity, just like your love of indie bands or your proficiency at intramural sports.
Where was I from? I didn’t want to be identified by any of the places in which I’d lived. I only wanted the distinction of having left. New Jersey was something I didn’t own; Seattle was too alternative; North Carolina too small-town; San Diego too superficial. I wasn’t a stereotype from any of these places. I smiled awkwardly. “North Carolina via Seattle, but I live in San Diego now.” Eyes glazed over with polite boredom.
So you’re going home for the summer?
I was and I wasn’t, but I wanted to try. San Diego sounded glamorous. If my new home had been stifling, rural, or familiar in any sense, “glamorous” would have been the last word I would have used, but a lifetime of magazines and movies had mythicized southern California. And a year of emails from my sister, posing with her friends among the palm trees, solidified the sense that this vaguely foreign place could be mine too.
But at first, San Diego was a shoe of the wrong size. I felt like a temporary guest in my room, despite the familiarity of our quilts. Yale had made me elitist, hungry for freedom, twitchy unless I was being productive. I drifted. I didn’t have any friends. I explored the beaches: the pink houses of La Jolla cove, the tucked away thrift shops of Encinitas, the rows of coffee shops of Carmel Valley. I got sand in all my clothes. I got stuck in traffic. I interned in City Heights at a non-profit tucked between a worn library and an array of ethnic grocery stores. I spoke Spanish and got a sunburn. The desire to fit in the new place that my family had created without me was a powerful enough to overcome fleeting jealousy of my friends in DC or London. I gloried in the fact that I had become an aggressive California driver. I told myself San Diego was home, and I made it so.
In North Carolina, two summers ago, I ate Chick-fil-a and drove (at a polite, leisurely pace) past the golf courses and country clubs. I toyed with being a debutante and then laughed until I cried. I brewed sweet tea on our porch, among other failed experiments. My parents were homesick for the west coast and already itching to leave, but while they expended their energy on looking for the next place, I accumulated more sundresses and Southern trappings. If you adapt enough externally, it follows internally. I told myself that sleepy, conservative Raleigh was home, and I made it so.
People from around here just want to stay here.
That was my friend Devon, a Jersey girl seeking adventure in San Diego. I drummed my fingers against the steering wheel and reacted pretty defensively for someone who had lived there for barely a month. “Why shouldn’t they? It’s not any different from any other place,” I told her, loftily. Take Seattle, where people grew up playing football at the same high school their parents had played at. Take North Carolina, where they boasted of being Tar Heel born and Tar Heel bred, and hoped to die Tar Heel dead. I was disdainful of immobility, but at the same time fiercely jealous of the security that comes with belonging to a place. My parents didn’t mind the lack of roots. It’s the immigrant story, they always said. Pioneer spirit, traveling from coast to coast for a better life, for more opportunities, for fun. You’ll be like that too, my mother said. I pretended for a while it wasn’t the case, but the postcards have accumulated and wanderlust is like an itch. Slowly, I’ve come to see that not knowing where home will be in four years is better than knowing where it will be for the next fifty. I’m confident enough in my ability to adapt—not just via sundresses and aggressive driving, but internally as well. You figure out what your anchors are and you take them with you.
And Abigail felt at home again, under the quilt.
“Home” isn’t a word that conjures up a particular street, or a school I attended for ten years. Instead, it’s a hodgepodge of bricks and cedar planks, of Seattle rain, of sweet tea, of watching hot air balloons drift through the California skies. The people remain consistent. It’s the continuation of the immigrant-pioneer story: exploring the new and absorbing the country from coast to coast. So whether I’m in New Haven or San Diego or somewhere in between, I’ll tell myself it’s home, and I’ll make it so.
Alisha Jarwala grew up in four states, and hopes to grow old in several more. Her areas of expertise include packing suitcases to exactly fifty pounds, sleeping deeply on plane rides, and writing illegible postcards. Send her an email at email@example.com.