The Joy Menu #67: Home
“Hey boychik,” the refined voice on the other side of the world says. “How’s school? How’s soccer? How’s the cello?”
Our nearest family is 500 miles away — one of my mother’s brothers. The nearest on my father’s side (his brothers): 5,500 miles.
Here, in Southern California, we have no cousins, no grandparents, no blood community, just those strangers we’ve cobbled together and called friends – people who go to our schools, work with our parents, attend the shul we’ve signed up for, people who live in the neighborhoods around our condo complex. Some are Jewish, which seems important, many are also immigrants, or the children of immigrants; almost all are transplants of some kind. Those that aren’t are distant somehow. Apart. Or, perhaps, they’re a part and we’re apart. But the effect is the same.
I hear my father’s stories: the cousins who came to his house on weekends, who went to school with him, who traveled with them, whose lives he helped live. One weekend, we drive to San Diego to see one of those cousins, her husband, and their two kids – they’re our age, and are staying at a timeshare (a way to preserve the green cards they’re planning to use on an impending migration); the shared game of ping pong we play becomes etched in my memory with more vividness than the day I get my braces off or graduate high school. When I learn that they go to the same school my father went to thirty years before, I’m transported to a world where such friendly peers are not just family, but a part of my everyday life – as they could have been, likely would have been, had so many migrations not torn through our family line.
My mother’s stories are the same, but even more detailed: the band of cousins of which she’s the second youngest – I learn their names, their personalities, their reputations. We meet most of them, or grown up versions of the characters in my mother’s tales, at Bar Mitzvahs, brises, weddings, in nearly every region across the States. We’re alone in California, and they seem to be alone elsewhere: in Illinois, Indiana, Virginia, New Jersey, Delaware, Hawaii. There’s no epicenter, no nucleus, just a shattered group sharing a few interrelated surnames, a group of grownups with intersecting childhood memories, long ago summers spent together, moving into and out of one another's homes, yards, campuses, lives. With their kids, my second cousins: a game of Monopoly on the carpeted hallway in front of our laundry machine; a trip to buy fireworks in a Michigan lake town; two dozen Bar Mitzvahs, dance floors that all look the same, disposable kippahs, mediocre food.
This is family: Dispersion. Secondhand memories. Rug burns. Ping pong in undecorated basement recreation rooms in San Diego condo complexes.
My father has three friends. A tall architect, a Brazilian mobile phone expert, and a jazz pianist. But mostly he has us.
I see him unfold his pants – lifting them from the chair where they rest from the moment he gets home until moments before he heads out – and pull his legs through one at a time. Going for a walk (alone), then errands (alone), then a movie (alone): “Unless you want to come with, boychik?”
I hear my mother struggle. There are different fashions here (“Californians would wear pajamas to the opera”). Different expectations (“We weren’t invited to the July 4th party – what do we need to do, drape the dog in a flag?”). Different ways of being (“At work they told me I’m too negative.” And, “No one understands my sense of humor.” And, “If we were in New York there’d be lots of people like us”).
It’s easy for me to believe these things. To feel these things. To internalize them – with her, for her, on my own. My father’s solitary nature offers no counter-narrative. My own young boy’s insecurities latch onto this energy and explain themselves this way: I too have been displaced, uprooted, taken away from my home.
But where is my home, exactly?
I’ve been in California since I was 3.
Was anyone meant to leave their tribe? To leave meant solitude, uncertainty, risk of death.
To leave your tribe and go far meant a lack of understanding of the plants (what to eat, what to avoid), a dangerous ignorance of the animals (what eats you, what avoids you), a lack of comfort with the terrain (where to walk, where to run), and that’s not even to mention the dangerous ignorance of the people you might come across: the most frightening unknown of all.
Yet here we are, now, spread throughout a world as broad as it is tall, as dangerous as it is tamed.
Here, in America at least, we fetishize the leather-clad youngest siblings who headed West into the “frontier” to conquer (steal) “new” lands – I merely fill in the gaps of my frontier with fantasies of the reverse: what if we’d stayed put, what if there were cousins around, what if this felt like home, what if it made sense for us to be where we were: rooted rather than potted, native rather than invasive.
What would it mean for home to extend beyond the literal walls of our house – to encompass other people, strangers, other houses, or even the outside: the paths between houses, the language people use, the creeks, the air, the religion, the region, the history, the land?
I ask my father for stories of his childhood. When he mentions names, I have to ask: Who’s that? “Your cousin,” he says. Or, “Your grandfather’s sister’s kid.” The mental map in my head is written on a napkin, and that napkin, carried from pocket to pocket and put through the wash, is soggy, frayed, thin.
On Sunday mornings, my father types in the twenty-eight digit calling card code (sold to him by some South African friend of a cousin. Who? I have no idea) and we get our grandparents on the phone. He passes the earpiece around. “Hey boychik,” the refined voice on the other side of the world says. “How’s school? How’s soccer? How’s the cello?”
In summers, the Hyatt burger tastes suspiciously like folded meatloaf and the Cottage has the most uncomfortable cast-iron chairs – but it’s easier, cheaper, for the grandparents to visit us and take us to these places, than it is for all five of us (and what about the dog?) to travel across the world to see them.
And what of this place? There is nothing wrong with it – in fact, it’s quite right: mild weathered, sunny, bright. The sidewalks are smooth and new. The schools are “good” (or so we’re told, again and again). There are jobs, and places to park the car – both cars in fact. The food is clean, the air is unpolluted, there are no wars, no forced conscription, no pogroms, no burning of our lives or our synagogues or our slowly accrued wealth. No encroaching social or political unrest.
Does anyone pack their lives into a suitcase and move across the world for nothing? And once you do, once you’re cast out, once you accept your wandering, what does it mean to stop – and how long until that stop feels really, or really feels like home?
Onward to creative joy,