Even as the first flakes of snow settle atop the dim street lamps, and even as the winter moon swallows the sun, I feel like I am falling into something warm. I have been since late August—falling, that is. Falling deeper and deeper into something like gentle love.
In the mornings, I wake up before my alarm rings. After scrolling through late night texts, answering some and ignoring others, I tap open Spotify and shuffle to the bathroom. I pass by Sarah’s room on my way there—the birthplace of all our 3 a.m. conversations and the unraveling of our deepest secrets. I know Sarah is still home if her bunny slippers face her bedroom door. I always find myself hoping that they do.
Each time I return to our rickety, splintering flat after class, I am full of tender hope. As I jam the gold key into the gold lock, and then the silver key into the silver one, I wonder if the berry-scented candle Sarah burned before class is still lit. (This is the Walmart candle she proudly chose. Sarah says the one I like smells like a man, even though it’s clearly labeled “Hidden Springs.”) I am happiest, though, when I take off my shoes and hear music wafting from the kitchen. Kitchen music means that our tiny pockets of free time have overlapped. It means that we’ll eat each others’ fried rice, and Shabu Shabu noodles, and never want to leave.
I used to wonder how my parents did it. How they built new places called home, drifting between countries and zip codes and people they loved. How did they manage to raise two children from new ashes, passing on faith in “home” even when they did not fully believe in it themselves?
Yet here I am, building new homes also, toeing disbelief and fondness, overwhelm and eagerness. I suppose it’s a bittersweet thing for me to say—and perhaps for my parents to hear—that in this snow globe city of Providence, I have never felt more at home.
But as lovely as the quaint New England landscape is, I don’t think it’s what makes this place home. Certainly, my affection for the string-hung traffic lights and the charming red brick buildings has deepened over the years (made perhaps even more magical by the pandemic wait), but these scenes are not the ones that simultaneously shatter my heart and sew it back together. In less than two weeks, on my plane ride back to California after my last first semester in college, I won’t really be thinking about the pretty East Coast snow.
I know I shouldn’t be thinking about the things I miss at all, at least not yet; graduation is half a year away. But I am writing about home, and home is made of the things we miss.
Surely, I will miss this rickety, splintering Providence flat, and Sarah’s bunny slippers (especially when they face her bedroom door), and the Pedestrian Bridge in all its nighttime glory. But more than those material scenes, I will miss the memories and the people they metaphorize. I will miss the meals our ragtag group whipped up together, nose-goes for prayer, roasting each other and then going around the table sharing appreciations. I will miss sleeping mere yards away from friends who are always down for the latest conversations about love and life and family, who buy me almond croissants/apple pastries/muffins/literally everything good, and who purchase carrots for me without wanting me to pay them back. I will miss the moments of quiet in which I, extrovert extraordinaire, learned to breathe, rest, and pray in solitude.
Yes, I will miss the ways that this place—on a physical map, called “Providence”; on my Apple Maps, called “Parked Car;” in my twenty-one-year-old heart, called “home”—has shown me how to love. These strangers steeped themselves in my humble, otherwise bland life, and chose me to be their home, too. We grew, together, into something like adulthood. We fell, together, into something like love.
I called my mom the other day and asked what she has been up to.
“What makes you happy nowadays?” I asked. I asked if she eats out with my aunts and uncles or if she goes to the movies with my dad, now that both my brother and I have gone away to college. She only laughed.
“I wake up early now,” my mom told me. My mom gardens and cleans the house, and she has been volunteering at a food drive. She recently bought a new juicer, which she uses to make drinks out of leftover food drive items.
“Dad is really nice to me, too,” she said, and that made me wonder about the people we call home.
“And I teach at a citizenship class for Vietnamese people,” and that made me think about the homes we help others build, sometimes realizing it, sometimes not.
“Oh no, I feel so old!” my mom laughed into the phone. “You ask me what makes me happy and these are the answers I give you. I feel happy doing things like cleaning up the house and making fruit juice. I’ll make fruit juice for you when you come home, okay?”
And I wondered, bittersweetly, about how much home has changed since I left it, how much my mom has changed, and how much I have too. I ponder the new people my mom has learned to love, just as I reflect on the new people I have learned to love. Or, rather, the people that have always been here, who we have learned to love anew.
As I write now, in this creaky old Providence house whose lease will expire too soon, I realize that building a home does not mean collecting pieces of others and storing them away. I used to believe it did—that homes were built on accumulation. Perhaps building a home means, instead, freely giving pieces of ourselves away, leaving them in the unexpected corners of the world. And maybe we cannot ever truly build homes anyway. Only places we call home.