I used to think my growing preoccupation with home culture came from my raising.
I was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As a girl at church, I was told my purpose in life was to become a mother. As a mother, my work was to make a home. In my own home, my parents told me to pursue a degree and career. They encouraged my writing. But what we learn in the home isn’t always a perfect counterweight to what we think we’re being told by God.
As I’ve grown to understand my whole purpose is not motherhood, that my work can but does not have to include homemaking, I’ve become more fixated on the home. I am no longer burdened by the belief that a home should be centered around a woman. I do not think a woman must be centered in the home. But I am increasingly convinced that home is what can center all of us. Just not in the way many of us were raised to believe.
I was raised in a series of California suburbs. Places that were ostensibly built around the home. And I guess they were. They centered each single home in it’s own ecosystem. That’s not the kind of centering I am talking about. A home is not a self-sustaining environment. We need more. This week I wrote about the isolation I felt growing up in a place where the only story that linked one home to another was commuter culture.
There are no stars or skyscrapers in the suburbs. Even as a child, it felt like an in-between place to me. Suburbs were built for commuters — they leave them to work and come back to them to sleep. Maybe that’s why garages are the focal point of most suburban homes: They’re the portal for a morning exit and evening reentry. In the movies, suburban streets are always full of children playing. That might be true in other places. I lived on six suburban streets in California and kids never played on the streets. The sidewalks were always empty.
While my raising plays a part, I think all those empty sidewalks are driving my growing obsession with the home. The suburbs I grew up in didn’t have a shared story that linked one home to another. Our houses were our homes, our community was not. This meant we had single-family home cultures, but we didn’t have a Home culture.
In Finding My Family’s Bones, I share how my search for a home culture took me to Kentucky when I was teenager.
When I was 17, Dad said I could choose any place in the world to visit with him. I chose Appalachia. I thought by leaving my hills to see those hills, I’d be making some sort of return.
When we were in Eastern Kentucky, we found ancestral burials,
In one hollow, there’s a cemetery full of my family’s bones. It’s on a piece of land owned by a relative who didn’t know we existed until we knocked on her door. Like ghosts from her past’s many present paths. She let us walk through the cemetery. It was carved out of a stand of trees, wrapped with a fence that couldn’t keep out time or creeping vines. The ground was soft and moved under me. As I stood over the bones of people who shared my name, I felt like they claimed me.
Of course, being claimed by your people doesn’t mean that that you get to claim the place they belonged. My grandpa left those hills when he was still a young man. I could visit the place that felt like home, but it wasn’t my home. I went back to the suburbs and decided that shared stories must be something other people get, in other places and other times. I couldn’t create that connected culture on my own. And then,
Ten years after our trip, my dad died. There was no green hollow for him. His grave overlooks a valley filled with tract homes. Generations from now, will someone wander back to him, looking for his bones? When I stand in that cemetery over my dad, I am moved to claim a heritage that will make his bones matter.
I think this newsletter is how I am trying to fill the sidewalks between my house and yours. There isn’t one story that can connect us, there are many. I do not know them all, I cannot envision them all. We need each other to know, to envision. It’s my hope that this space that interrogates old stories, and gently suggests the possibility of constructing new ones, helps us find our shared stories.
I do hope you read this latest essay. It’s about ancestors and community. It’s about the longing for home I can’t shake, even when I am in my own home. If I never wrote anything again, this feels like it would almost be enough. If I can be shameless, I'll just end with two endorsements of the essay from two of my favorite writers.
Maud Newton writes Ancestor Hunger, a newsletter about finding our ancestors. It’s one of my favorite reads and I think you should subscribe. Rainesford Stauffer is one of my favorite people writing right now. I think you need to read her latest piece on teen mothers during the pandemic. And I think you should pre-order her upcoming book, An Ordinary Age. It’s a book about finding meaning in an ordinary life in a world that emphasizes the exceptional. That’s a narrative I can get behind.
I want to thank each of you for being here and for helping me learn new stories. It’s more than 17 year old Meg could have ever imagined.
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