Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays
'Cause no matter how far away you roam
When you pine for the sunshine of a friendly gaze
For the holidays you can't beat home sweet home!
Whether you prefer the (really) old Perry Como version or the more recent one by Cyndi Lauper/Nora Jones, you probably know the tune. And if singing along with it triggers a spark of nostalgia (or a shudder!), you are not alone. Here at Five Directions Press we’re dishing this month about home and the memories it generates.
Gabrielle Mathieu: When I was six, we lived in Peshawar, Pakistan, away from the military base, in the town itself. My father’s modest civil service income, applied to the local economy, translated into wealth. We had a nice home and spacious garden. I have a photo of me with our three servants. All of us are wearing a kameez (a long tunic) and salvar (baggy pants). The men are wearing hats and turbans, and I am half-reclining on their laps. I am told I was quite spoiled.
I remember our home through fleeting impressions, mostly smells and colors. Scorching sun beat down on the red brick of our house. The air-conditioning worked and then didn’t. The large garden was a place of refuge.
I spent time in our orange grove, squeezing the leaves to release the pungent smell, and breathing the heady fragrance of orange blossoms. I remember the bitter aroma of the lantana bushes, bristling with umbels of blooms, concentric pinwheels of tiny pink and yellow flowers, like whirling explosions. Most of all I remember the day my father showed me the sweet pea blossoms, and how their lovely smell startled me. To this day, there is no other smell that affects me quite like they do.
Sweet peas require coolness to thrive. So it must not have been hot there all the time.
Yet all I remember is an endless summer, the pressing dusty heat, and the exhaustion of waiting for the AC to cough back to life.
Ariadne Apostolou: We lived in Bradford, MA, on the second story of a duplex when I was five and Johnny was four. Because my mother taught school, my father had us during the day. He worked in his study and took us along to visit his parishioners and the church and to collect my mother.
We wanted to play, but my father was no believer in frivolity. A son of poor immigrants, he had worked as a child and assigned us chores that kept us out from under foot. Mine were sweeping the house properly (not helter-skelter) and dusting the living room furniture.
He required us to speak only Greek, which he constantly corrected, so conversation was brief. He taught us Greek grammar daily and how to read it. He intimidated me: tall, strict, and rarely smiling. An Old World pater familias who never heard of Dr. Spock, he could strap us for bad behavior.
Johnny and I were firm allies, united in our determination to steal some fun where we could. We played secretly in our bedroom after naps and in the back seat of the car. Greek had its hilarious side to it. We imitated his parishioners and roared hysterically at the alphabet book in which the Greek duck quacked, “pee-pee” to sound the letter P. For K, the Greek crow cawed “ka-ka.” My father never cracked a smile.
Once, while I dusted, I heard noise inside the fireplace, scrapes and booms echoing up the flue. I called Johnny. Who would soon visit us through the fireplace? Santa Claus! The noise came randomly after that, but often enough that we waited daily by the fireplace to try to catch it and talk to Santa. We told our mother that Santa was in the fireplace.
“Hello! Santa Claus?”
“Ho ho ho!” a deep voice rumbled, and we pranced around the living room, giddy with excitement.
Years later, after I had just bought my vacation home overlooking the Mediterranean, I thanked my elderly father for insisting on my Greek fluency. I was frank too, about the agony he caused me at five grappling with declensions and the subjunctive mood. Just then the joy of the fireplace Santa came to mind, and I mentioned it.
My father smiled, sheepishly. “That wasn't Santa,” he said. “That was me in the basement. I was playing with you.”
Claudia Hagadus Long: From the time I was born until I was seventeen, I lived in fourteen different houses or apartments. From seventeen to thirty-five I lived in nine more. For the past thirty years, I’ve lived in exactly one. So you could say I’ve been around, but I’ve settled down. (Sounds like the start of a bad Country & Western song.) Of the twenty-four abodes, though, one stands out.
When I was five, we moved from an airless little apartment in central Mexico City to a large stone house on what was then the outskirts of Mexico City. Now, with the immense sprawl it’s practically downtown, but then we were in the almost-countryside. The house was owned by the mysterious Magdalena Mondragon, still the coolest name ever. It was dark, cold, and had an enormous patio in the middle of it, sort of an indoor-outdoor space with flowers, plants, and pools of mosquito-laden standing water, as it was the rainy season. The house was also infested with tarantulas and scorpions.
At night, my father would come into our room with a baseball bat, and check the walls for tarantulas. A natural athlete, he made a sport of never striking out. He’d smash the critters to dark stains on the stone walls, then check the red tile floors for scorpions. Once cleared of vermin, the room was deemed safe for his three little children for the night.
One evening, we returned from the long drive from the US border, where we’d gone for our biannual passport-renewal journey. We were tired, grumpy, and hot. Our dog was excited to see us, and my six-year-old sister knelt down to pet her. She leaped up with a howl while the scorpion that had stung her knee skittered away under the furniture.
A long night in the emergency room was followed by days of convalescence for my sister, while my parents made plans to end our three-month tenancy and move back into the city. We moved to a large, airy duplex, with plastered white walls, hardwood floors, and very little mystery. It was there that my sister contracted hepatitis and a tarantula crawled across my pillow. It turned out that nowhere was really safe. Life lesson at an early age.
Denise Allan Steele: Growing up in a tiny house in Ardrossan, Scotland with two younger brothers meant we all shared a room, the boys in a double bed underneath the window, and me in a single pushed up against the wall a few feet away. Until I was about 12 years old, it was great fun jumping from bed to bed reenacting scenes from Scooby Doo and epic battles from Kung Fu. (Our dad was a Kung Fu instructor, so these had some degree of authenticity!)
But one day I realized that my brothers were smelly boys and I was a lovely girl, and I was fed up with skateboards and The Flintstones and Batman and toy soldiers and being ambushed every time I walked in the room. I wanted my own room, with fancy cushions on the bed, and a lava lamp that wouldn’t get kicked over during the spectacular fights, and I wanted to lie on my bed and read books and write long detailed letters on flowery note paper to my pen pals in America and Holland, and maybe even have a scented candle and a place to safely hide my chocolate stash.
The one day it happened. The local housing authority agreed that our house was too small, and they gave us a bigger one at 59 St. Andrew’s Road. And I had my own room! My dad painted it bright yellow and I got a little white dressing table for my new lip gloss and my knickers and my chocolate stash. I picked a bunch of yellow dandelions from the garden and carefully arranged them in a jam jar and placed them on a fancy lace doily on my beautiful dressing table. I got my orange lava lamp and my fancy cushions and was instantly best pals with the girl next door—and forty-four years later, we are still best pals!
I know that 59 St. Andrew’s Road looks like a little council house with two front doors (the extra door leading to a passageway to the back of the house for the coal man to deliver the sacks of coal for the fire), but to me it was heaven. My dad, a firefighter, didn’t let me light the candles, but I had the lava lamp and the cushions, and I had solitude and peace to lie on my bed and read my books. This tiny room was my first real home.
Joan Schweighardt: When I was a baby, my parents lived a hard-scrabble existence in my grandmother’s rickety house on a polluted river in a hard-up town in New Jersey. We probably would have stayed there too if the needs of a family member had not required us to move to an affluent community in the next county, where the only house we could afford backed up to a supermarket parking lot. Another lot, still in gravel stage, hugged us on the left. To the right was a main artery that cut through town, and to the south a side street leading into the residential area. Our tiny property was an island in a sea of gravel and asphalt!
My mother and grandmother, who moved with us, hated it. When the lot was full, shoppers parked in front of our house or alongside it. They made a lot of noise getting in and out of the cars and left their carts on our sidewalk. “We live in a goddamn fishbowl,” my grandmother often said as she floated from window to window with her cigarette. But I liked it fine, especially in winter when the plows pushed snow right up against the line of shrubs that separated our narrow strip of yard from the lot. Armed with garden tools, my friends and I made tunnels in and slides on those mountains. And the lot offered an education like no other once the mountains melted. Lovers who worked at the grocery store parked up against the shrubs after hours to “make out.” Workers repairing pavement came to our house to ask for a glass of water during breaks. Once a mother pulled out of the lot before her daughter had closed the car door. She carried her bleeding child to our house. We bandaged her up and called the ambulance and saved the day.
Even as I got older and began to hate the lot too, I still marveled—and I marvel to this day—that all I had to do was lift a slat on the Venetian blinds in my bedroom to behold humanity in action: mothers pulling their kids along by the ears; boys smoking cigarettes; men sitting in their cars daydreaming while their wives ran into the store. Each scenario was a story waiting to be written. And of course there were plenty of stories about the sad, dreamy little girl who spent her time watching the world go by from her bedroom window.