Home Sweet Not-Exactly-Home

Family, dirty jokes, train whistles, and the other side of the bed.

My aunt always says her house isn’t perfect. Early on, I would have agreed. It was hard not to compare the decades-old, dark place full of perpetual clutter with our airy, modern McMansion.

Time went on, and unhappiness and age took its toll on the McMansion. I grew up loving it and clinging to it, but at the same time, I realized later, feeling as though to step foot outside it would be like what the ghosts in “Beetlejuice” experience. Sandworms everywhere kept me mostly inside, and when outside, terrified.

Whenever we took flight back to New Jersey, my aunt’s house is where we landed. Anywhere else, we would have slept each in our own bed, but here, my mother shared with one of us, and the other two slept on the sofas in the basement (reclining sections out for full width). The sofas were uncomfortable, and still, I never woke up with a lingering ache in my back the way I do now. I never had trouble falling asleep.

There’s something about my aunt and uncle that gives you a sense of peace and ease. It’s not necessarily hospitality or coziness, though there is some of that. I think it’s their sense of humor. I think it’s the fact that my aunt can talk with you for hours and you’ll always have something to say to each other, and that, like my mom, she’ll never judge you (at least not out loud). I think it’s the fact that while my uncle plays the role of “curmudgeon”, underneath he’s really one of the most decent, self-sacrificing souls I’ve ever come across.

Their house has its comforts and its inconveniences, those things you find perfect and those things you wish you could fix. But the indisputably best thing to me is that, in the bathroom or the backyard, when it’s quiet, you can hear the train to New York whistle as it passes by. The station is miles distant, across countless hills and forestland, but there it is, that whistle.

It makes me remember when I was in college in New York. On many weekends, I’d take that train and come to this house. I’d travel under water (holding my breath), then over the tracks of brown-gray Newark, where my aunt’s generation lived, then into trees and towns that were often surprisingly beautiful. I made the trip so often that I used to know the stops by heart. When I take the train now, the order sometimes easily comes back to me.

My aunt’s house was a refuge to me then. It was a mystery to my father and stepmother, who lived nearby. It was a mystery to some of my roommates. And I couldn’t exactly define it myself. This wasn’t my childhood home, but only a place I’d stopped by from time to time. But there was something like home about it. And the way my aunt and uncle always welcomed me, always made me feel safe, that most definitely was home.

A few weeks ago, I was back there, staying at their house for maybe the longest I’ve ever stayed, certainly in the past few decades. My son was with me, and I’m older now, and on this visit, there was no train trip to New York and back, but still, in moments, in little flashes, I was my old self from college, at times safe, at times afraid. Adding to the sensation were the last of the boxes I’d stored away at my father and stepmother’s house for years, nearly forgotten. They’re moving, and now it was time to go through and break the boxes down.

There were college papers, essays, notes — I couldn’t believe I’d kept so much, and at the same time, I know why I did. There were photos, old letters, cards from people who loved me and have left the world, cards from people who I’m glad are still here. There were books above all, so, so many. When she’d shown me all the boxes, with a sense of exasperated relief that they’d finally be off her hands, my stepmother had made a very astute and unusually honest observation: “I think you used all those books like a wall to protect yourself.”

She’s right, I realize. Nowadays, I turn only to one at a time, with razor focus, and it works better, and I tumble through my life into another.

I donated most of the books. Sometimes, it wrenched my heart. I worry about many of them. Every night at my aunt and uncle’s I’d take down a box and sit in the living room as they watched TV, going through everything, apologizing for the sounds of crinkling paper or plastic. After, when I’d had enough, my aunt would put on “Jersey Shore”, our favorite guilty pleasure.

Another guilty pleasure that they buy me every time, without fail: chocolate chip cookies from BJ’s, which I proceed to make vulgar double entendres about and eat far too many of. This time, my son helped me finish them off. But he’s too young for the dirty jokes. I’m looking forward to the day when three generations of us will be able to obligingly chuckle as I say, for the millionth time, “You know I’m a big fan of BJ’s….cookies.”

There were the long conversations, always at the kitchen table, even though the living room or the sofas in the finished basement (the ones I’d slept on long ago), are much more comfortable. There were meals at the diner, little kindnesses, little annoyances.

Unusual sleeping arrangements continued to be de rigueur. My son is too young to stay in a dark basement by himself. So, we shared the guest bed. As I climbed in beside his already sleeping little self that first night, I hoped wearily that he wouldn’t move too much and kick me. And suddenly, I realized this was probably what my mother had thought when she’d had to share the bed with me. There I was, so happy to be close to her, but knowing that despite unconditional love and all that, she wasn’t totally thrilled.

I didn’t kick, but on several occasions, I did do the thing I do with everyone I share a bed with: checking that they’re breathing. Some people (like my son) never notice. My mom always did. She’d roll her eyes at how dramatic I was being (when I was a little older than my son, “Sarah Bernhardt” was my nickname).

On that first night — maybe as I was settling under the covers, or maybe as I was falling asleep - I realized suddenly that I was on the other side of the bed. I usually slept by the door, but now, it was the window spot for me — and that was where my mother used to sleep, every time we came here and shared the bed. I was in my mother’s place now, with my son beside me, and my mother’s body was about an hour away in Sleepy Hollow (to her delight), and her soul, I think, was looking over us then.

After taking that in, I felt like now I was grown-up. But really, I hadn’t changed much, with the exception of having this new little kid to love and take care of. That made me feel even closer to my mom, who was always herself, maybe sometimes to a fault. She got lost in some ways, but never in motherhood, and when my siblings and I think of her (which is often), it isn’t with gushing thoughts of maternal love, but rather of funny things she did or said, things she liked or hated. We share little stories, photos, her common sayings.

I was so close to her, and so close to my son, and at the same time, still and entirely myself, there in this house that’s seen me through almost my entire life so far. I closed my eyes. Outside the door, across the hallway, I knew the trains to and from New York would whistle now and then, until late into the night.

is a writer & worrier. She lives in Paris with an eccentric Frenchman, a clever toddler, & a charming cat. Besides them, she loves books, travel, & cookies.

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