~ “…All through my brain
came the refrain of home and its warming fires:
And home sings me of sweet things
My life there has its own wings…”
Bonnie Raitt, “Home”
Since 2005, I have lived in seven different places, mostly rental apartments in Pittsburgh. It’s ironic that in my adult life I’d found myself moving from place to place on a regular basis, as I deeply valued roots, community, and a sense of belonging somewhere. In one of the last apartments I lived in, on a quiet brick street in Squirrel Hill atop a hillside that overlooked Frick Park, I had constant visitors: a herd of deer, wild turkeys, groundhogs, butterflies, cotton-tailed hares, raccoons and the occasional human. I had hoped to stay in that apartment for a long time, but I lost my job and returned to my family home in New Jersey back in 2010.
Each time I moved into a new rental, I tried to turn it into a true “home” for myself. I had long ago resigned myself to the fact that I was never going to be a homeowner. As part of my nesting ritual, I would plant a garden outside of my apartment, as soon as the early spring sunshine loosened the earth. I started doing this when I was around 25, living with my young son in a small railroad flat on Northumberland Street. The apartment had a postage-stamp front yard, and I planted cosmos, nasturtiums and a blue hydrangea bush in front of the shrubs. I never asked the landlord if I could do this; I just started digging wherever I lived, and frankly, none of them ever complained.
The gardens served two purposes for me: they satisfied my soul’s need to have beauty around me, and they gave me the illusion of stability. After all, I was tending and nurturing roots; surely, I was allowed to set down my own roots, wasn’t I? I planted mostly perennials, those hardy souls, which would bloom year after year. In the summer, in my years in the Squirrel Hill apartment, when my daisies, lilies, coneflowers and dahlias flourished in the hot sun, and I was out in the yard, throwing a tennis ball for my Australian Shepherd, Rosie, I could feel myself stable and happy, looking forward to the maples on the property burnishing bright red come October, or the soft stampede of the deer in my yard during the ice and snows of February, searching for my cut-up apples and the birdseed from my feeders.
But this bubble—this illusion of “home” as stability and as a place I had some “say” over—was constantly being burst. The landlord would politely ask me to stop putting birdseed out in the yard, as it was attracting mice. Or they would tell me that a part of my garden would have to be destroyed, as they had workmen, who would need to set up ladders where my flowers were growing, so they could re-shingle that part of the roof.
Worst of all, I needed to move for one reason or another. I hated pulling up stakes, leaving behind all of the neighbors who had turned into friends. Also, I realized that I would have to leave my gardens behind, knowing full well that I was abandoning my flowers to disinterested tenants, and they would eventually wither from neglect or smoother under overgrown weeds.
At dusk, I walked Rosie up and down the steep hills through my lovely Squirrel Hill neighborhood. During these evening walks, a deep longing for my own home would wax, full and burnished as a hunter’s moon. Lamps would flick on in the brick homes, offering me glimpses into the lives of families—mylar balloons floating above a table crowded with children in one home; a man, book in hand, putting on his glasses in another; and gangly dogs yowling at Rosie out of front screens. These walks were bittersweet, affording me glimpses into the lives of “settled” families, who owned their own homes and could plan their lives around them. As sunlight transitioned to lamplight, I pictured myself walking up the sidewalk of a particularly lovely home, stopping to pick up the newspaper from “my” stoop, opening the red front door and stepping into those soft pools of light. I imagined someone there to greet me with a smile, glad to see me back again. What was hard to imagine was what it would feel like to say “mine.” On nights when my yearning for a home grew too overwhelming, I would hurry Rosie through our walk and deliberately not look into the illuminated windows.
So, here’s the AMAZING thing. I have just become a homeowner!!!! It’s official. The inspection is done, the offers and counter-offers and negotiations have wrapped up, and the papers have been signed and exchanged. I finally! own a house in the wonderful city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a house that I fell in love with as soon as I walked into it during an open house just a month ago! It is a red brick house with gleaming oak floors and the original woodwork: built-in bookcases in the living room and dining room and decorative fireplaces in both rooms. The staircase with its lovely banister. Three spacious bedrooms upstairs, and a wide hallway where my artwork will find a home. The closing is at the end of January, and there are still loose ends to tie up, but this beautiful 1930’s home is now mine. I will be able to plant both a front and backyard garden this spring. I could even plant a flowering tree! I will have a separate office, for the first time ever—a designated writing space, full of light, with its delightful little arched brick fireplace, overlooking the avenue, where I can write my poems, blogs, letters and comments on students’ work.
And I will have, for the first time ever, a guest bedroom. I’m already imagining putting a vase of flowers on the nightstand for Brian and Zoe’s visits. I picture us walking up to the local restaurant, which serves delicious Pan-Latin food, having a leisurely meal and coming home to my house to play cards and drink Pinot Noir late into the night. My mind is already busy inviting everyone I’ve ever known and loved, my mother and all of my beloved siblings from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, California, eastern Pennsylvania and Illinois to come and stay with me. I am imagining I might buy a male dog, maybe a pound pooch, maybe a Golden Retriever, to keep my beautiful Rosie company, when I have to work long days. (No more dealing with realtors saying “no dogs allowed!”)
I am dreaming about wall colors and kitchen cabinets and rugs and comfy chairs to curl up in and read. I’m dreaming of dinner parties with small groups of my very favorite people, and summer walks with dear friends, who live nearby, and music playing and Scrabble boards set up and neighbors stopping by for a glass of Merlot. My guitars will be up in my office space, and I will play and sing to my heart’s content, without always worrying about bothering my upstairs’ neighbor. I will walk to my favorite coffee shop, mere blocks from me and visit with friends and grade student quizzes. And at night, when I walk Rosie down the avenue here, I will glimpse a beautiful lit lamp in the living room window of one particular home and will be able to walk straight up that sidewalk, past the purple coneflowers, onto the porch and open the door to my own home. I can hardly believe this is happening. After all these years. I am thrilled, scared, and amazed. And more than anything, I am so incredibly, incredibly grateful.