I wrote this last week after a visit to my childhood home. These are my thoughts about “loving a place.”
Loving a Place
“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.”–Joan Didion “In the Islands,” The White Album (1979).
Joan Didion was referring to writers. Certain places are so compellingly immortalized in fiction that it’s almost impossible to see them any other way. Think of Hemingway’s Paris, Kipling’s India, and Mark Twain’s Mississippi River. I came across Didion’s quote while searching online “loving a place.”
Most of the articles I found in my search related to travel. I certainly have experienced falling in love with places travelled. In the traveller’s way, I love the island of Kauai—green, steep, spiritual, stunningly beautiful, flowing with water. I love the island of Alonissos in Greece—aqua crystal sea wherever you turn, winding paths through silvery olive trees. When I was a child, I loved a ranch near Utopia, Texas I visited with my family. It was rough and lovely with a clear, rocky stream. I cried when we left knowing I would never be back.
These places are special, a good fit, beautiful—places where I could wake up every morning of my life and marvel at how fortunate I was to be there for another day. I could give facts to support why they are special, but place-love is an emotion not a decision; it’s a deep and spiritual resonance.
Yesterday I returned to the place I loved first—my childhood home from the very beginning. That love is a different kind of love for a place. It’s a deep, familiar love, intertwined with family love, familiarity, and memory. My parents, my two sisters, and my brother moved there just before I was born and brought me home from from the hospital to a pink nursery with big windows and pine floors. Tall pines grew in the sandy soil next to sweet gum, hickory, oak, and dogwood. My mother planted azaleas everywhere, and daffodils, and sweet peas. A creek ran along one side teeming with tadpoles, minnows, and crawfish. I dug in the sand with kitchen spoons, and mined red clay to make bowls for my dolls. The grass was cool and deep, and my brother and I ran barefoot in the dusk catching jars of fireflies for lanterns. At night the chorus of frogs and toads comforted me when the sashes of my dresses fluttered in the shadows of the open closet.
I knew that place intimately, tree by tree. I knew the stones in the creek, the four-o’clocks, the roses. I peeled the petals off fallen camellia buds and launched them spinning down the creek. I collected acorns and sweet gum balls and perfect pine cones for who knows what reason. I ate purple figs off a huge fig tree and cracked walnuts on the driveway and picked out the meat with my fingernails.
Whenever I felt cranky, bored or afraid, I went outside and was comforted.
When I stopped by my childhood home yesterday, where the current owners were holding a garage sale, I felt sad and possessive. What could they know of this place that they bought to re-decorate and “flip” once my mother found it too far to walk from living room to bedroom and to hard to balance on the soft grass? They don’t know the history, the love, the little girl or her treasures, all of us and all of our treasures I checked for a special tree, and there it was, still standing. I saw a lone, tall camellia bush blooming red. I saw sandy soil in bare patches where the thick San Augustine grass had given up it’s hold.
If Joan Didion is right, if— “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image” —then this place belongs to me, and it always will belong to me, because this place is the story I have written about my childhood. And Little Piney will belong to me because it is the story I am writing about myself now.
I have been curious about my love for Little Piney, my current home. It was love at first sight. I knew this place had to be mine, was already mine; it felt like home. Little Piney has brought me back to myself in some ways, to that little girl soothed and inspired by nature. Little Piney has been my spirit mother since my mother died a year and a half ago.
At Little Piney I return to the timelessness of childhood where dusk and hunger pangs surprise me. I am consumed by curiousity and the pleasure of being outdoors. I’m learning the trees. I know where to find a Painted Bunting or a Kinglet. I know that when the amber dragonflies disappear, the purple dragonflies arrive. I know the feeling of this field and that grove.
I have learned that when we lose a loved one, grief eventually lands us at acceptance. There we can begin to live fully with that loved one as an ever-present part of ourselves. I am never alone at Little Piney. I am there with my mother and my aunts, my father, and my sister. I am there with a younger version of myself. I am there, and I am home.