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Elizabeth Caffin

Bill Bryson has just published a book called At Home and Douglas Lloyd Jenkins wrote a wonderful book with the same title. But these books are about houses, not homes. Years ago genteel people used to send out invitations which read "Mr and Mrs Selby Palmer At Home Sunday 5pm", but such decorous events were not very homely. Maybe home does not exist. It's an idea or a memory or an aspiration.

It's our childhood gone forever; it's cake and fresh peas and the old wireless with the speckled cloth across its mouth. It's a landscape changed utterly, grandparents long dead. Or left behind long ago, the old folks at home. It's a time and a place we once were but are no longer. One friend remembered it as the farm which she grew up on but which has since been sold. Another thought of it as the seaside place his mother came from, where he went for school holidays. In exile it is remembered with anguish and longing, as Ovid yearns for Rome, Stephen Foster for his old Kentucky home, Ruth sick for home amid the alien corn.

It's a refuge, safe and secure, warm and familiar; it is a turangawaewae. "Home is the place where, when you have to go there/They have to take you in." (Frost) The troubled Iris Wilkinson was always looking for it, a home in this world, but alas never found it. A frail old man I knew asked plaintively "When can we get our coats and go home?" from his bed in a retirement home, which is definitely not a home.

It's where a game starts and comes back to. I learnt from my cousins a version of hide and seek called "Go home, stay home". It resonates in rounders, softball, baseball; or in horse racing as the home stretch. It's the local team, the local ground, it's home, not away. It's the home front, staunch and thrifty. It's there again on the computer keyboard, at the beginning of the line.

But it's deeply ambiguous. It may be dull, or disturbing; it may harbour regrets and sadnesses. It can be the place you have to leave. "It is suicide to be abroad. But what is it to be at home? …. a lingering dissolution." (Beckett, All that Fall) Home is where adventures begin from, the traveller sets out for the unknown, Odysseus goes to Troy, Stephen Dedalus leaves Ireland for Trieste and Paris with his famous weapons of silence, exile and cunning, the godwits fly.

Or if we are women we can take the position of Penelope, of those left behind. We wait for the teenager to come home; or the soldier – when will the boys come home? Home is waiting, for a visit, a return, a message. Its peace may anytime be shattered by disaster, the telegram, the knock on the door. But it is also our territory, our seat of power, and we can all share Linda's utter relief at Stanley's departure into the world. Home-making, home baking are female activities, and homework and home schooling often are too.

Then there's the homecoming. The long-awaited child returns bearing the marks of the world upon him. And probably brings a partner. Disruption, not joy ensues, the very image of change. Pinter's outrageous and terrible play is the classic. Marilynne Robinson's Home is a complex and moving negotiation among the familiar and the unfamiliar, the sinned against and sinning, in the shadow of the story of the prodigal son. Home is the setting of the cycle of the generations: a father is dying, a small son appears, the possibility of redemption.

The scale in which home is found varies, from the place where the family lives/lived to the town (my home town), to the country, the homeland. For the immigrant of course the identity of home is forever problematic, as it was for the generations of Pakeha New Zealanders living in a wild far-off land "with never a soul at home". My grandparents spoke of "Home" though they were not born there, had no relations left there; my parents did not use the word but they went there, to study and to fight; now the young go to America or Asia and there is no longer a home across the sea. R.A.K. Mason thought he had "no other home than this". If you are Chinese though or Samoan there is still the pull of origin, of language and culture. And even if you live away from home you still think about it, as Mansfield did, as Selina Tusitala Marsh does, preserving it in memory or performance.

So generous and expansive is the concept that it is also seen on vast scale of life and death. Dying far far away on a Pacific island Robert Louis Stevenson thought that hilltop above Vailima was where he would come to rest, the ultimate home: Home is the sailor, home from sea … In a religious context home is close to heaven, "man goeth to his long home"; "our shelter from the stormy blast/And our eternal home". Mason's poem though was not simply about New Zealand but about cleaving to the material world, denying the hopes of heaven offered by religion. For Wordsworth home was where we started from, a spiritual realm of purity and innocence, "But trailing clouds of glory do we come/ From God, who is our home", a home that fades in murky adulthood. For Maori Hawaiki has this sense of a spiritual home from which we come and to which we shall return.

I was born in England in wartime (no clouds of glory) and my earliest memories are of living in someone else's house in someone else's country. Ironically the very country that used to be "Home" was not; that was another country far away where food parcels and aerogrammes came from. We took the long voyage out as our ancestors had, arriving finally in a harbour ringed with small bright houses. I spent my childhood and youth in Christchurch in the house my parents built in 1947–8, an ordinary wooden bungalow. I left at 21 and never lived in that house or that city again. In 2001 with my daughter and in 2009 with my mother I have visited that house but it is so changed, walls knocked down, the garden my mother laboured in so ruined, that I could not go there again. It is not my home anymore. My parents moved from that house and later from that city; none of my family remained there. And yet and yet … who, once living in Christchurch, was not moved by the broken spire?

For twenty years I lived in at least seven different houses in five different countries, usually for several years at a time. At each move you packed up, transported your belongings, hung your clothes in the wardrobes, pictures on the walls, towels in the bathroom. You got to know the neighbourhood, the TV programmes, the best shop for fresh vegetables. This place became the current familiar, the daily habit – until the next move. I didn’t have a home – except for the official New Zealand one that was forced upon me. I didn’t mind that homelessness because leaving home is exciting and provoking, you learn, you change. I got pleasure in remaking a place to feel comfortable, and in the changing view.

The last view from that time was over the Samoan jungle to the vast Pacific where the frigate birds flew and very occasionally a ship sailed. It was exotic, it was beautiful but it was not home.

But home is not only a place to look backward to. It is also what we hope to make for our children. After my husband died I moved to Auckland with my daughter and we made something like a home by the sea. I lived there 23 years, longer than I had lived anywhere, and that is another house I do not want to back to; I must have left part of myself there. But I was always going to move on. Home is not houses or bits of land or cities or nations. It is where we feel at ease, where we can be ourselves without embarrassment, it is a support, a structure for living. For violinist Clare Galambos in Sarah Gaitanos' recent biography of her it was music: after all the horrors of the Holocaust she nervously opened the score at her first rehearsal with the National Orchestra and found it was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. "I remembered the Fifth Symphony. I thought Oh yes, I'm home. I'm home." For me it is the world of words that I carry with me wherever I go. It is lines of Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Edward Lear, John Keats, Jane Austen; it's recipes and speeches and jokes; it's letters and puzzles and songs. It is reading and writing and talking and listening. It is fiddling around with subject and verb, noun and adjective. It is finding the only words that will do, in the only order. That's what I've always done in a quiet way; and always will.


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© Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Caffin & Trout.