Jean Marie Johnson

There’s no place like home. Home is where the heart is. Home sweet home. I’m going home. The variations are endless. Without question, the word “home” is close to our hearts. Eavesdrop on a Thanksgiving or Christmas conversation, and you are likely to hear some version of “Are you going home for the holidays?” For immigrants and transplants, home is often the place of origin, or it may be the new country or state.

In many cases, it is both. When I was growing up, my father spoke long and often about “the old country” even as he railed at its politics and hardship. The letters arrived by Air Mail and were immediately devoured and savored, a small piece of home. Decades later, long after he had passed, I traveled to my father’s homeland with a curious mind and an open heart. The immersive experience gave me an understanding of how my father’s home country shaped his spirit and his worldview. Flying back to the states, I remember thinking that even when memories of “home” are less than perfect, home beckons to us over the course of our lives. I also understood that whether our journey from house to house is across a continent or simply across town, we are all nomads in search of home.

And so I’ve been thinking about the many structures I’ve called home over my lifetime: at least three ranch houses, two apartment houses, four condominiums, one 1980s house, and two 19th century houses. Have I really lived in that many physical structures? Can’t be. In fact, I’m sure that I am forgetting something, but what I am remembering more than suffices.

The houses I called home as a child shaped me. As I ventured beyond the known as a young teenager, my sense of house and, by extension, home, evolved. I saw how other people lived and expanded my ideas about what was possible. As an adult, each house was inextricably tied to my successes, my losses, and my mistakes, a journey with many twists and turns.

Every one of these houses shaped me and, to varying degrees, reflected me. They helped me to hone my sense of self and to more clearly define the type of home I wanted to create.

That’s what I love about the idea of home: it’s not static or fixed; it is as mutable as I am, always a thing in progress. At some point, I tossed the conventional notion of “the perfect home” where it belongs: out the window. My “perfect” home is one that honors where I’ve been (and been through) and genuinely reflects who I am right now. From my gaudy “disco-inspired” decorative pumpkin to my “shrine” of bird feathers, petrified moths and bird nests, and my New Orleans-inspired “veranda,” it’s a tapestry I fondly call home.

Of course, as with my father, it’s not that simple. When I go back to Connecticut, my home of origin, I will nestle there in familiar places. I will sleep in the daybed I bought my 37-year-old niece when she was three. I will eat in the old, boisterous diner where I used to take my mom after Sunday mass. It’s not all good, and it’s not all bad. Few things are. I will find comfort, joy, and sadness in these familiar experiences of home and I will see them for what they are: a forever part of me. I will thank them, bless them, hold them close to my heart, then turn my attention to my latest expression of home, right here, in Winston-Salem.


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