Thinking about the questions: What is home? What is Place? What initially pops into my head is the typical Hollywood image of a mom and dad eating at the dining table with daughter and son, and Dad asks how the kids' school day went and how well they did on their math test yesterday. I don't have a realistic connection to that image; it certainly wasn't an authentic depiction in my life experience as a kid. By age 12, I lived under many different roofs, my mother, grandmother, father, and my eldest sister, all at some point served as my parent-guardian. That equates to 4 different cities and 6 different elementary schools.
In 1997, if you walked into my home at 6 A.M. you would have to walk through the maze of blankets and pillows that smothered the carpet floor from the front door to the sliding glass door that leads to the patio. Under those blankets would be six of my cousins, two of my aunts, and myself. We would be getting ready for school; each of us would be responsible for folding and putting away our pallets. Grandma - partially clothed would burst out of the biggest of the 3 bedrooms in our 1000 sq. ft. apartment that a dozen of us stayed in, and announce, "Make sure you brush your teeth! And wash your face! Zachary you're supposed to put your socks on first before you put on your pants!" Before we leave off for school, Grandma would head to Sentry Foods grocery store and bring back Long John doughnuts and Orange Juice for the kids to have for breakfast. Those Long Johns were the best part of the morning!
As the seasons changed we all eventually moved elsewhere in separate homes. Having to adapt to life without my cousins - whom I thought would be by my side forever - I had to eventually find a home in other forms. I tried out life in theatre, sports, writing poetry, and MUSIC! When I didn't connect at home, I immersed myself into music. By the year 2000, I was a music fanatic. I may have been the only 10 year old in the world who knew all the lyrics to Lulu's To Sir with Love and Betty Wright's No Pain No Gain.
For a couple of years, Jay Z's The Blueprint (2001) was a place I would go to feel home. As an adult I wondered why, for that period of time, that album was so important to me. It's interesting to me because Jay Z is not on the list of my favorite music artists, so I took a recent listen to examine some possible reasons why I was drawn to The Blueprint. The musical production, packed with samples of soul singers from the Motown/Hi records era, sets a nostalgic backdrop that is reminiscent of my mother and aunts determined to sing louder than the music coming from the audibly maxed out Boombox, while they raise their glasses of Korbel Brandy on the rocks. A lot of the content on the album centered on the reality of a drug dealer elevated and transformed into a more respectable life - which is content I could relate to. But there was more content I could relate to. There was a song titled Mama Loves Me that I felt resonated with me and told my story, which felt like home. Some of the lyrics are: "Mama loved me, Pop left me, grandma dressed me, plus she fed me." I think what I felt from The Blueprint was a need to focus on my strengths and use them to excel in school. The rhetorical genius of The Blueprint was that, regardless of your situation, you can always overcome and move forward from any circumstance.
Nowadays, Home for me is biking to the library bringing along paper and a pen for me to create, checking out books and movies that interest me. The library is the most welcoming public place for me to go. For the most part I don't feel judged or stereotyped, and it offers an abundance of inspiration categorically placed on dusty shelves. I find Home running outside when the sun is at its peak, doing a variety of exercises and witnessing the progress and changes that happen to my temple. I find Home in conversations with my grandparents and great aunts. I get an indescribable feeling when I hear a cool, never-before-heard story from my elder, which greatly influenced my life - though it happened before I was born.
Conceptually, I think we associate Home with goodness, comfort, love, and family. Place would be considered the physical component of the Home concept. What City and State one resides in? What side of town one stays? Does one live in a house or an apartment? To me, Home is a spiritual bank that holds the good memories, world-views, goals, songs, family traditions, recipes, and inside jokes that I shared with my loved ones. What makes me feel at home? Is it a sense of familiarity? Is it an unspoken mutual understanding of the people in our place? More importantly, an integral part of home, for me, is an endlessly available source of inspiration to be a better person.
My aunts - along with their children - weren't living with my grandmother by choice. The popular theme that rang throughout our Home was "We gotta somehow be greater than we are now!" We needed to be successful in life, we needed to have better lives than the previous generation of our family. We (kids) understood - and were reminded very often - the trials and hardships (regardless if the details were age-appropriate) that the last generation endured. There was a rhetorical message that was (unconsciously) instilled in us: that the importance for us to achieve had less to do with ourselves as individuals but more to do with our family - past and future generations. Every time I accomplish anything, there is a part of my mother, aunts, and uncles that feel a sense of redemption, like, "See I told you we could do it."
Writing this piece invoked both proud and sad feelings. It's a sad realization that my family and I will never be connected to each other as we once were. My home in 1997 will never again be. So it seems, the Places where I resided were just moments that have passed and now I'm living out the reaction of those places. My life consists of the consequences (positive and negative) of my past homes and places, while possessing the potential to create new homes for others and myself. I am proud to know and come from a place that - on the surface - appears impoverished, but actually equipped youth with confidence, a sense of history, and self-respect. The Home where we had the least -in a material sense- is the same Home where we felt most connected, most creative, and most alive.
Zach is an educator in Madison, WI currently employed at Verona Area High School in the field of special education. He enjoys writing, watching films, and learning new languages. Although he lives on the westside of Madison today, his heart resides on the eastside.