When you travel back to the place where you grew up, it can stir up all kinds of feels - to say the least. For me, home is a state of mind. However, when I find myself back in Michigan, a place that I struggled to call home for a long time, it’s not that easy to say goodbye.
I was an angry little 5-year-old when my parents moved our family from a sunny, beachside life in San Diego to the carpeted-basement floors of the metro-Detroit area.
My parents had lost all their money in a bad business venture and were completely broke. In desperate need to find free shelter and a good job, the only option was to turn back to their roots in Michigan. To them, home meant life-long friends, a big Lebanese-American family, and a place where kids ran free until the street lights came on.
I had another plan. My dad had been living and working in Los Angeles during the week, while my mom, baby brother and I lived with my grandma in San Diego. Since we only saw him on the weekends, why couldn’t he move back to Michigan - alone?
Even I knew that he was not welcome to live at my grandma’s, his mother-in-law. My bluestocking, Swedish-American grandma had never been afraid to share her harsh opinions regarding my dad, his background and my parents’ marriage. In fact, she had already told me that I would need to be careful in life because I had “his genes,” and not my mother’s. She also explained to me, ever so kindly, that no matter how much money my father would make, we would never be considered wealthy due history, ethnicity, Catholicism, and education - or lack thereof.
Being only 5, I decided to trust her because I liked how she and her life looked. Plus, she never made me angry. And I liked how she hard she made me work to win her approval. It felt like the kind of challenge that would probably give me a trophy, if I won.
Leading up to the move, I argued, cried and pled with my mom to let me stay with my grandma alone. She tried to be patient, but eventually, she snapped. Curtly, she said, “you belong with us; end of discussion!”
My beady eyes glared with a fresh coat of tears, watching her board the plane back to Michigan with my baby brother. My parents could only afford one plane ticket, so I had to drive across 9 states with my dad in a U-Haul. And, unable to afford motel rooms, we slept in the truck for 3 nights in a row. Thinking of the irony, but unable to name it, I felt angry. So this was where I belonged?
One night while we were on the road, we pulled into a gas station to sleep for the night. I ranted while my dad made a bed for me in the gap between the seats and the truck wall. Hysterical, I told him I was scared, that I wanted to live with my grandma, that I missed my best friend Ilana, that I wanted a hotel, that I wanted to fly on the airplane, and that I hated him and Michigan…
It wasn’t in my dad’s nature to be calm. But without my mother there to do the nurturing, he remained patient and comforting; reassuring me that we were safe, he would never let anything bad happen to us and we would be “home” soon.
That only made me whimper more. Home? We weren’t going to be “home” any time soon, as far as I was concerned.
When we arrived, we stayed at a cousin’s home. A year later, we lived with our good family friends. I liked their home, but it wasn’t ours. The next year, they rented an apartment. It was fine, but it didn’t feel like the home I remembered feeling in San Diego. The next year, they rented a house with a pool, but compared to all of my private school peers’ homes, it was shitty. At 10 years old, and 13 moves, my parents bought a house and finally unpacked all of their boxes.
Finding home, for me, has been a long, winding, pot-hole-ridden, dirt road ride without any rest stops.
Eventually, and due to the many privileges my parents provided, I was able to learn that home was much more than a place. Home has been whatever I’ve needed it to be - my career, a home cooked meal, a loving a boyfriend, or the feeling that you get when the plane lifts from the ground.
Had my parents not moved us back to Michigan, or into so many other people’s homes, perhaps I wouldn’t have learned that lesson.
There are loads of reasons to criticize places like Grosse Pointe, Detroit and Michigan. From the Flint water crisis and the poverty-porn of Detroit’s streets to systemic issues like historic racism and unequal distribution of wealth, the state is full of easy-to-vilify targets. As a person who dedicated their entire childhood to judging all of the things, all of the places and all of the people, I get it.
Yet I cannot deny my positive experiences and overall outcome. It was a place that gave me an exceptional education with rare opportunities, surrounded by a well-intentioned, trustworthy community. I had early exposure to history, renowned art collections, dramatically-contrasting economies, racial tension, and differing societal nuances. I was able to witness the beauty that came with every season and experience the small character shifts that they inspire within a person. And, the biggest privilege of all, I was never far from my ever-loving, overly generous, multi-generational family who never made me feel like I had to do anything to win their approval. Well, except for maybe a few of the uncles who didn’t believe daughters should leave home, unmarried…but, that’s beside the point.
All I can say is that I’m sorry for my sweet, hateful grandma who clung to so many misunderstandings. As much as I love her, my parents have always been wealthier than she ever could have been.