“Words can build many houses. I am thankful that this one is mine.” ~Erica John, Coming Home to Connecticut
I’m reading an essay collection, A Place Called Home: 20 Writing Women Remember. It’s no surprise since I’ve been writing so much about home. The home I knew before I left Brooklyn at 13, the one I’ve been trying to find, rebuild since then. It’s also no wonder this is heavy on my mind as I now weekly make my way to a teaching gig in the neighborhood I grew up in. Like I’m not surprised I found this book in the teetering pile of to-read books next to my bed. I don’t know where I got it. I don’t think it matters. Books come into your life when you need them most. I see them as a special kind of leaning in from the universe.
I’m thinking about the spaces I’ve called home. I’m returning to visit one next weekend in the town I escaped to at 13. Wellesley, Massachusetts, where I learned to save my own life. The ABC House at the top of the hill of Norfolk Terrace. The slope that grew a dangerous few-inches-thick layer of ice during the winter. I fell so many times. One time, I slid on my ass straight to the bottom. Yes, my poor behind was cold and wet but I’d made it down without breaking anything. Making it back up would have to be figured out later. I always made it back up. Somehow. For four winters.
Then there was my host family’s house where I spent one weekend a month. My host parents who gave me my first living example of a loving, functional partnership. (They’re still together.) The ones who kept in contact all these years, nearly 20. Who forgave my disappearing acts. Who when I visited last year still referred to the extra room as “your room,” my room. It was the first room I had to myself ever. For one weekend a month. Starting at 13.
In college I was lucky enough to have a single every year. My room. I grew to cherish the notion of having “my own room,” after having to share a room for all of my childhood and adolescence. My room became my haven, my nest, my safe space, wherever I moved. I lived dorm-style for so long even after college.
In my first apartment after Columbia U., the only space I put real love and decorating time into was my room. I painted the walls bright red, hung pictures and artwork, spent money on furniture. The rest of the apartment just wasn’t my world.
I lived alone after that, not wanting a roommate ever again. (I am a need-my-own-space kind of artist.) That apartment was the cutest and coziest space I created for myself up until then. It was a captain’s studio apartment, considered a studio because the living room and kitchen were together in one room. I learned how to sponge paint and used my newfound knowledge to sponge hues of red and orange and yellow on the walls. I hung Dali and Picasso prints. Created a new collage of pics to surround myself with love. I bought a wooden island for $600 to separate my kitchen from my living room. (For a long time, this was the most I spent on a single piece of furniture.) I bought a futon, got a wall unit from grandma, lugged an armchair I found up to the fifth floor. $200 for a used bedroom set from a friend who was graduating from college and needed to get rid of it quick. I made that little apartment home.
So when I met my daughter’s father and he scoffed at my home when he and his brother were helping me move out and in with him (“She lived like this”) that was the first in what became a long list of resentments and reasons to leave.
I moved into my current apartment three years ago. After my first VONA, I pledged that I would do two things: I would quit my 9-5 editing job and move to Inwood to facilitate my writing life. I moved within five months of making the pledge. A month shy of my second VONA, I quit my job and started my new life as a writer and writing teacher.
I bought it exactly 20 years ago: my first house with my first real writing money… It has never been ‘decorated.’ It contains instead the collections of my life: my grandfather’s paint splattered easel, my father’s old upright piano, my former father-in-law’s ancient Royal typewriter (an amulet for Molly), antique quilts bought on drives to Vermont, majolica plates sent home from Faenza, wine glasses I watched being blown in Venice, a motley—and precious—assortment of family portraits painted by my painting family.
I come from a long line of guerreras who endured the kind of poverty you only see in Save the Children commercials. My grandmother starting working as a domestic worker when she was four. When mom wanted to make us feel guilty about all we had and didn’t appreciate, she told us stories of her childhood in Honduras. How she owned one pair of shoes so she went to school barefoot because her one pair was saved for special occasions. Most days the only milk she had was the yellowed, chalky powered milk, bugs floating in the mix, that she was given en el colegio.
I don’t have china passed down from distant generations or a necklace that belonged to my great-great grandmother, the duchess. What was passed down to me is not tangible, aside from pictures. What was passed down is an ability to make a home with little. A few cans of paint, dozens of pictures, art bought at flea markets and street vendors. Sarongs and scarves used as throws. Rugs to cover unpolished floors. Books and books stashed in bookcases, piled on floors, stacked in every room.
“Words can build many houses. I am thankful that this one is mine.”
I am a clutterer. A paper hoarder. I have boxes of papers I’ve promised myself I would sieve through, eventually.
Last year, in cocoon state (I go through these phases often), I went into the bins and found writings from as far back as my boarding school years. I read my firsthand account of isolation written in my fourteen year old penmanship. How I learned to be a woman, through trial and error. How I learned to navigate white America, my own shame and hurt.
So, those piles of papers on my couch, perched precariously, held up by the wall, piles that have fallen on many friends, those are my writings from over the years. They are what have kept my spine from bending over and snapping.
In the four room railroad style apartment I grew up in, Mom had a poem painted on a tile, likely bought at a cheap, Latino-style five and dime, that read: “Mi casa es pequeña. No es una mansion. Pero espacio para amar. Y eso es suficiente.”
My space is small but it is home. My home. Called a womb, by a friend, I’ve put work into making my space cozy and safe. For my nena. For me. For my stories. No sera mansion. Pero es mia. No one gave it to me. Y nadie me la puede quitar.