Home, for me, is not where I was born.
It’s not my grandparents’ house in Batavia or that duplex we lived in for the year I was home-schooled, and it’s certainly not the Chicago suburbs where my aunts and uncles raised their families.
It’s a little town called Waterman. And it’s where my memories of childhood, good and bad, still live.
When winter comes every year in a much milder form here in Tennessee than in my native Illinois, I’m reminded of that place where I grew up, that place I most often think of when I think of home.
And I remember what it still has to teach me today.
One year, when the snow had just fallen — I was 11, maybe 12, and my family had just moved to a farming community of 1100 people — I learned a valuable lesson about what home really means.
That day, my parents had gotten into a fight, and to get back at my dad, my mom hid his Mickey Mantle baseball card.
When I discovered this, I was outraged. Because the card wasn’t my just dad’s; it was mine. Ours. He just held onto it for me for safe keeping. But it belonged to the both of us.
Marching up to my mother, who was cooking in the kitchen, I demanded: “Give me back my card.”
“Stay out of this, Jeffery,” she scolded, using my full first name (which is never a good sign).
“No. That’s my card. I want it back.”
She rolled her eyes, continuing to stir something in the pot on the stove.
“Mom!” I said. “I want my card back. Give it to me!”
“Jeff, this is between your father and me. Stay out of it.”
Then she left the stove and began to walk out of the kitchen. I stood in her way, trying to block her, but she brushed past my preteen body, uninterested in negotiations.
This made me even angrier.
Seething, I did the only thing I could to regain control of the situation: I decided to steal my mom’s favorite pair of earrings.
She didn’t have much jewelry and often lost necklaces and other pieces, but for some reason she had hung on to these earrings. They weren’t expensive or fancy, but they were her favorite nonetheless.
Disappearing into her bedroom while she folded clothes in the living room, I rummaged through her jewelry box while watching the door, paranoid of being caught.
Eyes on the entryway, I fished out a few unwanted sets until… there. I’d found them.
With the earrings in hand, I quietly closed the jewelry drawer and then the bedroom door behind me, then stepped out the back door into the cold, without a coat.
“Oh, Moooom!” I called in my best Macaulay Culkin voice, daring her to come see me do something horrible.
At first she didn’t hear, so I raised my voice and shouted again.
This time, she came to the back door and saw me standing in the snow. “What do you want?” She sounded annoyed.
Good, I thought. Let her be mad.
“Give me back my card,” I said.
“Stay out of this, Jeff. It’s between me and Dad.” She went to close the door.
“No! That’s my card; give it back. Or I’ll throw these.”
I pulled my arm back like a catapult threatening to launch. Standing in the snow with unlaced snow boots, I felt the cold creep up my legs while sweat dripped down my forehead.
“What?” She asked, squinting to see what was in my hands. And then she saw. Her eyes widened and seemed to darken a hue. “If you even dare…”
I accepted the challenge and released the catapult.
She didn’t react as expected: she just walked away. Standing in the snow, a smug look on my face, I had won.
A moment later, my mom reappeared at the back door, holding what looked like a baseball card in her hands. Without a word, she threw the plastic-coated portrait of Mickey Mantle in my direction and slammed the door, locking it behind her.
Running through the snow and almost losing my boots, I retrieved the card. As I picked it up, I sighed in relief, seeing it was undamaged by the snow. Finally, I had gotten what I wanted; my plan had worked.
So why did I feel so rotten?
As the weight of what I’d done hit me, I ran back into the yard, trudging through six inches of snow, to find the earrings.
After searching for nearly an hour, I never found them.
Resigned, I returned to the back porch, wondering how to get back inside. Surprised to see the door now unlocked, I entered and withdrew my boots, quietly brushing the ice off my pant legs.
Then I crept downstairs to my bedroom, hoping I could go to bed without having to face anyone, especially my mom. My plan was to slip out in the morning to search again for earrings.
A few hours later, my mom called for dinner.
Great, I thought. This is going to be bad.
To my shock, she didn’t say anything about the card or the earrings. Unsmiling, she served me my dinner — probably something like meatloaf — and didn’t say a word.
I could tell she was mad. Why wasn’t she saying anything?
We shared a warm meal together, the whole family, and few words were exchanged. I don’t recall my mom bringing up the matter to my dad or shaming me with what I’d done. We just ate, each person quietly keeping to himself.
I even had seconds.
Later, I would apologize to Mom. I would do this many times, in fact, even pleading for forgiveness. And of course, she forgave me, saying it was okay.
But I knew it wasn’t. How could it be? Those were her favorite earrings. And although I tried to make up for my crime with other gifts and forms of retribution, I couldn’t.
The damage was done. Forever.
For days after, I would return to the back yard to scan the area for the earrings, hoping the old pair would turn up, but they never did. Even after the snow melted and winter passed, I never found them.
Those earrings taught me an obvious lesson about consequences and why we sometimes can’t undo the hurt we cause others. But years later, they taught me another lesson, a valuable lesson about home.
Home is where we sometimes hurt the ones we love, but the back door is always open and there’s always a seat at the table. It’s not a necessarily a location but certainly more than a feeling.
Home is the place that we are loved, even when that love is complicated and messy but still takes time to set a plate for you.
It’s where we take things for granted and sometimes do things we’re not proud of, where we cry and scream and shout — but always have a hot meal waiting for us.
Home. It’s the one place that never really goes away; it’s always there, wherever there may be. And it’s the perfect place to return to.
Note: This was an adapted excerpt from my latest book, The In-Between, which is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and elsewhere. Also, the full version of this story appeared in Under the Gum Tree, a creative literary magazine. To read the whole story (and others), get a free download of the magazine here.
What does home mean for you? Share in the comments.