By Sarah Farbman
Louisa’s father was eulogizing a pair of grass-stained sneakers. I stood in the yard, swatting bugs and holding the iPhone we were using to FaceTime Louisa’s sister. Tracy gently placed the shoes into the hole dug in the ground before moving on to a ten-year-old set of flashcards from a class Louisa had taken her freshman year of high school.
I was sad to see this little house in Nashville go—it would soon be razed to make room for Bigger and Better—and I really felt for my girlfriend and her family. But I had not grown up there. This home was not my home, this sadness, not my sadness.
I am from the Chicago suburbs, I guess. But my parents are from New York, and their parents are from Philly and Rochester and New York. Before that it was Ohio and before that, the Ukraine. And now I have cousins scattered across the country like dandelion seeds carrying a fervent wish. And anyway, the suburbs are boring. So, though I spent 13 formative years in a gray house 40 miles from the city (always knowing that I would someday leave), I liked to think of myself less as a suburbanite and more as part of a pack of Generational Nomads.
I must have been a freshman in high school. Emily and Allison had been my classmates since we were little, and now we were sitting in Emily’s kitchen, relishing the kind of junk food my parents didn’t buy. Her mother Paula was telling a story from her own childhood, and it dawned on me that she had grown up only a few miles from where she had settled. This seemed odd. Only one adult in my entire extended family lived in the same state where they’d grown up, and, until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me that people, like, did that. Several years and ten bedrooms later, I’m beginning to wonder: what’s so wrong with staying put? With being in touch with the Emilys, with going to baby showers for former babysitters?
In early November I was staying with a friend for the weekend. When she heard that I hadn’t seen Moana—the Disney movie about a Polynesian princess who goes on a hero’s journey and saves her village—she insisted that we watch it. I cried. Have you read the Odyssey? Or maybe seen the Simpsons version of it? (I won’t judge.) What about Harry Potter? The Bible? The narrative arc of the hero’s journey is so prevalent in our media and our culture that it can be hard to notice. If you want to be great, the story goes, if you want to be special, to be important, to change the world, you have to leave home, to go on some sort of quest.
So I did the things. I moved away for college. After college I moved a third of the way across the country for a yearlong fellowship program in Washington, D.C. At the same time, Louisa moved a third of the way across the country in the opposite direction, to take a job in Denver, CO. As my fellowship year progressed, calling my family, missing my college community, longing for Louisa, I began to question this cultural value of the hero’s quest. Halfway through the year, I told Louisa that when my fellowship was up, I would pack up again and follow her out west. I didn’t yet know that by the end of the year, I would see a vibrant community developing around me on the east coast. So when the fellowship ended, I moved. It was only when I was unpacking my things in a new state that I was able to appreciate the community that I had left behind.
And then I did it again. Louisa and I have had a dream for a while to move to another country. So we created a timeline. Three years after college, we would move to somewhere in Latin American for at least one year. At the time that we began planning, I was new to Denver. I was lonely. Even though I didn’t feel any particular attachment to my hometown, I was starting to look at people who married their high school sweethearts with envy. When, two years later, the agreed-upon time came, Louisa and I packed up and moved to Loja, Ecuador. I never felt that cohesive sense of community in Colorado, but by the time we left, I was starting to feel like I knew the area and had some friends, and I was sad to go.
I haven’t talked to high-school-friend Emily in a while, but I saw Allison recently. I try to see her every time I visit my parents. She’s living in Chicago, about 40 miles from where we grew up. She’s been with the same company, although in different positions, for about four years. She has dinner with her parents a couple times a month. Her brothers both live in state, and she’s close with her aunts and her cousins. Maybe this is the ideal I’m craving right now. But even though Allison has lived in the same state her whole life, not all of her friends have. They keep moving away, and she has to keep making new ones, just like I do.
I called my mother on my way to work one morning about a week before this past Thanksgiving. Louisa and I would be flying in for the holiday, and we had some logistics to discuss. I was just getting to work, trying to make my mmhmms and oh yeahs? sound conclusive and slightly distracted, when my mother casually mentioned that they would be painting my room right after Thanksgiving. With my father planning to retire in a few months, they wanted to get the house ready to sell while they still had an income.
My dad has been waiting to retire since he started his career 20 years ago, and I’ve always known, in theory, that retirement would most likely mean moving. But the practical timeline delivered calmly with my morning gossip felt like an iPhone alarm to early-morning ears.
Arriving home a week later, I hugged my dad at the door and smiled back at the cheery wallpaper flowers that have been lining my bedroom since 2003. An inevitable goodbye hovered, yes, but this was an arrival, and it had never felt so good to be home.
Abby, a college friend, is an artist and a self-described homebody. Her dad has been out of work lately. She went out of state for college, but it helped that her older sister was a student there, too, and Abby could sleep on her floor when she needed too. Post-college, she moved back home with her parents. When she had a job and an income, she moved out, into an apartment with her older sister. When we spoke a few months ago, Abby had to go because she had brunch plans with her mom and her sister. I have a meal with my mom and brother about twice a year. Brunch sounds nice. But Abby feels stuck. She’s never struck out on her own. Her parents need her. Her sister is a good roommate. She likes St. Louis. But there’s a narrative arc that Abby hasn’t had the chance to follow.
It’s a funny sort of privilege, all this moving I’ve done, and it comes at a price. Many people, I am sure, want to move or travel but can’t for one reason or another. Many other people, I know, have no choice but to move, chasing opportunity, being chased by violence or lack. As much as anyone chooses anything, I have been choosing to criss-cross the country and the Americas. But I don’t live in a vacuum any more than anyone else does; the choice is not entirely free. Consciously and unconsciously, I have been striving to live up to the story of the hero’s journey. And for a long time, I thought that the suburbs where I grew up didn’t hold anything for me besides my mom and dad, a house that smells the same way every summer, and a few high school friends tucked into apartments throughout Chicago. In exchange for freedom to move when I want to and for the excitement that comes with discovering new places, I have given up, or at least suspended, a long-term community where I feel known and understood.
It took Louisa’s family about six months last summer to go through the process of moving. Throughout that time, I held her when she cried. I shed a few tears of my own. But I didn’t realize how the loss of her childhood home must have felt like a loss of the screens on which memories play, a loss of a space in which she was allowed to be any version of herself, from youngest childhood on up. At that time, secretly and subconsciously, I didn’t think I had anything comparable. Sure, there’s this house in the suburbs that is always stocked with my favorite snacks. And yes, every inch of the place is covered in memory. But my family never quite fit into that cozy suburb, and as a teenager, I felt bored. Ready to go. It was only in those last few days of Thanksgiving, packing books into boxes and mentally cataloging which wall hangings I would relegate to a storage unit somewhere and which would be escorted to the dumpster, that I realized just how much I stood to lose.
So. I am from the suburbs of Chicago. I am from the Metra train, taken to pretend that I actually live elsewhere, from midwestern pride when the wind gets cold and the snow turns gray and slushy. I am from rocks that no longer ring a tree in a backyard. I am from a gray house with a black roof, a fire hydrant and a helplessly crooked basketball hoop out front.
And soon, I will be from a house that I see only in my mind, in the stories of my family, in old photos. That chapter of my family’s life will soon be closed. And I will feel untethered. But it is my hope that someday Louisa and I will settle, and my brother will settle near us and my parents will follow. This would be the credit scene in my own hero’s journey, the end of freewheeling young adulthood and the beginning of whatever comes next. We won’t have the gray house, and I won’t have wallpaper flowers to smile at and scratched wood floors to reminisce with. But I will have a new place to call home.