A few thoughts on what it means to leave a home

On Friday afternoon at 3pm we pulled out of Philadelphia—sweaty, tired, and with our clothes streaked with grime from a day spent moving boxes.  We nosed into Poconos traffic going West on I-76, headed for a week’s stay with my dad before we drive to Ann Arbor next Monday.  The bumper-to-bumper pace didn’t make for a triumphant departure from the city, but after weeks of scrambling from one moving-related chore to the next, it felt good to have nothing left to do but drive.

The previous night Caroline, Jay, Wally, and I had gone over to a friend’s house where we’d had a last supper of sorts: pizza from Gusto on paper plates.  We walked home slowly in the cool summer night (a thunderstorm had just passed through).  As we rounded the corner onto 20th street, Caroline, who’s felt the impending move more acutely than I have, said that in five years Philadelphia had become home, and that on a gut level, it made no sense to her that we were leaving.

I had not put it in exactly those words before, but I agreed with Caroline completely.  I might not be able to say exactly what makes a home, but there’s no doubt that Philadelphia had become one for us.  The next afternoon, as we drove north to my dad’s, I thought about what it means when we say that a place has become home.  The first thought that came to mind was a moment from the last place I’d lived before moving to Philadelphia, at a time in life when I felt just about as far from home as I’ve ever been.

It was a morning in October 2005 and I was standing beside a busy intersection in Varanasi, India, watching the tumult of the morning commute: rickshaws and bullock carts, four-axle trucks, shiny SUVs, diesel-belching buses, and pedestrians all whirling together.  The scene was so unfamiliar, so dizzyingly chaotic, that it felt almost like the world was being created right before my eyes.

After a moment, though, it occurred to me that if I came back to that intersection every morning, eventually I’d begin to make out the patterns of daily life—bus drivers, sidewalk merchants, rickshaw peddlers who came that way every day.   It’s the first time I remember consciously thinking about the value of staying put, and standing there in my hiking boots and my oversized backpack, I found myself wanting the sense of place that I imagined the people in front of me had.

And that’s what I’m going to miss most about our lives in Philadelphia.  After five years living on the same street in the same apartment, I knew the lay of the land around me better than at any time since I’d left home for college.

I could tell the difference between Saturday, Sunday, and Monday mornings by the number of cars passing outside my window, and when I’d run through the city at night I could have told you what day of the week it was by the number of people sitting at sidewalk tables.  I knew Mrs. Kim who sold produce, the hipsters who sold hardware, and the mail carrier who on hot days went to work with a towel around his neck and a white safari hat atop his head.  I knew that every weekday afternoon at 5pm the same five moms and the same five toddlers could be counted on to come out to the park to play.

It’s hard to assess the value of something like waving hello each morning to a neighborhood friend whose last name I didn’t even know, but something about that type of interaction, multiplied across my days, gave me a greater sense of ease and satisfaction than almost any other experience I’ve ever had.

And this, I think, begins to get at what makes having a family so rewarding.  In the same way that I loved being able to tell the difference between Saturday and Sunday morning by the number of cars going by on Pine Street, I love being able to read in Jay’s body language how close he is to needing a nap. I love knowing that as I type Jay is asleep in the room down the hall and Wally is upstairs in his bassinet and Caroline is right beside me. I love the small-scale rhythms and routines of the four of us waking and working, eating and sleeping together.

So sometime late next Monday night when we exit I-94 and lay our bleary eyes on Ann Arbor for the first time as a family, I imagine I’ll be thinking both of Philadelphia, which is where I learned what it means to make a home, and of Jay and Wally, whose presence in the backseat means that when we begin to lay down tracks in our new city, we won’t be starting from scratch.