What “Home” Taught Me

BY JEAN MARIE JOHNSON

Amidst all of the hunkering down at home, I found myself following a thread of thought that ultimately led me to every configuration of four walls that I called “home.” It’s funny what I remember. Well, not “ha-ha” funny, but curious and revealing, giving truth to the saying, “wherever you go, there you are.” Looking through the lens of “home” – that simple, profound, and sometimes loaded little word – I saw myself in every version of the four walls I recalled.

There’s a very early memory of my mother bringing my baby sister home from the hospital on a mid-September day in Connecticut. The sun was shining, the dogwoods were turning, and I was beaming down at the sister who would become my forever-through everything-would never-tell-another-soul friend, my Laotang. In that little pink house that my dad built, I learned a fierce form of primal, sibling love that would stand the test of time and oh-so-much change.

A few years later, we moved to a three-story apartment building. I lived within those four walls until I was 23, and in so many ways, it was an experience that shaped me. Long before I began reading Virginia Woolf, I discovered the utter necessity of, if not a whole room of my own, at least a space! That space was the top tier of the bunk bed my sister and I shared. Believe me, that tiny oasis of personalized turf was off-limits and sacrosanct. Once I climbed that four-step ladder, I was the queen of my own turfdom. Isn’t that exactly what today’s “she-shed” is all about?

Descending was a different matter, rife with all kinds of experiences. My sister and I survived a near-drowning, Lucky, our mutt, was hit by a car three times, my mother and I escaped a fire, and we mourned my father’s passing on the day of my 8th-grade graduation. I know, it all sounds so awful, but what I see is a young girl who cultivated her resilience within those four walls, a young girl who also discovered her hustle. Man, could I hustle! School stimulated my mind and my creativity like nothing else, but odd jobs and gigs raised me up…and eventually, out. I babysat, never managing to master diapering, alas; I tutored; I sold Avon through high school and beyond. That house taught me the importance of being able to create my own meal ticket – no matter what. 

A series of condos followed, mostly a blur against the backdrop of a no-nonsense corporate hustle that made my first husband and me more akin to ships passing in the night. For all of the time I spent alone, surrounded by my four walls, something else was emerging: an irrepressible desire to make my house my home. I didn’t grow up with “nice things,” but I had my father’s deeply rooted appreciation for beauty and a penchant for self-expression to match.

By the time the old house bug became the “MO” of my forever husband, Dean, and me, I was in full throttle, making every inch of every one of those 19th-century walls my own. Thank God for the well-honed resilience and the hustle, because there is no challenge quite like a 19th-century would-be masterpiece – or two, or three! A far cry from the bustling working-class neighborhood where I grew up, I learned about life in the suburbs, in a small town, and in the country, eventually trading in my stilettos for “sensible” footwear that allowed me the freedom to explore nature with a beginner’s mind.

As I look around now, in this quieter chapter, I know that my 1968 North Carolina ranch house is a little bit of everything that every house has taught me about myself. There’s familiarity and comfort in knowing that wherever I go, there I am. I can count on it.

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