[Editor’s note: All week we will be posting the finalists for our first D*S Essay contest. The theme was “HOME”. Voting will begin on Friday after all finalists have been notified and posted. Thank you so much to everyone who entered this year’s contest! -Grace]
As a little girl growing up in Oregon, I had two homes. Every two weeks my older sister and I would pack our suitcases (soft-sided, navy blue) and move from our mom’s to our dad’s then back again. Dad’s house had the best trees for climbing – a tall cherry, a gnarled pear, a trio of plums – all laden with fruit at different times across the summer months. His house was narrow and old, with the kitchen and bath tacked on the back some decades past and held up with stacks of cinderblocks. The floors of those rooms were sloped, and in the clawfoot bathtub I’d have to brace my legs against the end to keep from sliding down the drain along with my hot pink Mr. Bubble bathwater. Over the course of many years my dad and grandpa Wayne tore those rooms off and built others and his house and my childhood smelled of the sawdust of constant construction, and the buzz of long summer days were punctuated with the staccato beat of the hammer. And it felt like home.
Mom’s house was newer, built at the top of a hill and surrounded by woods. I’d hold elaborate funerals for the chipmunks and velvety-soft shrews I sometimes found dead beneath the trees. Her house smelled of coffee percolating and Fendi perfume, and sounded like her soft voice reading me Betsy-Tacy books, my head resting on a chest that was later made lumpy, but no less comfortable, with the scar tissue of breast cancer surgery. And it felt like home. At seventeen, after drifting through high school, I moved into my best friend’s robin’s egg-blue VW van. We named him Jimmy and headed south to California then east and north through Colorado and into Nebraska, where a nice guy showed us where to crawl underneath the van and hit it with a hammer to make it start so we could continue north to Quebec and south to Florida — a year-long looping figure 8 of the country. At night we’d pull onto dirt roads, into friendly driveways, into truck stops and grocery store parking lots. We’d close the colorful calico curtains her mom had sewn before we left and we’d look at our maps, and that felt like home.
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As a nineteen year old I landed in the sticky mid-July heat of Rome. Amid that big city chaos and a language I had yet to learn, I worked to disentangle myself from an eating disorder cultivated during my first year in the dorms. My brain was full, but my conversations were restricted to a novice’s grasp of the language – the simple and the mundane. How do I get to … Where can I find the… Excuse me… How do you say … I learned to navigate the winding streets with my creased and faded map hidden in a pocket, ducking into doorways to memorize my route so I could walk with assurance, eyes forward amid the catcalls of “Vikinga, Vikinga!” – a tall blonde Viking desperate to blend in. I came to love the city, where spectres of history appear at every turn, and in my narrow bed in my narrow room, with the washing strung on the line that stretched across the balcony outside my door and the smell of potted basil, that too felt like home.
Years later, after four universities with one degree done and one to come, I set off for five months of walking from Mexico to Canada; 2,600 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. I carried my house (distilled to so few items – sleeping bag, pot for cooking, half of the tent) in my backpack and every day there were more miles, another stretch of trail. From desert floors to snowy mountain passes. Heading always north, my trajectory, for once, straight and purposeful. The smell of chaparral in the south and the vanilla scent of ponderosa pines, the wet snow of the Sierras, the familiar firs of Oregon, the changing of the seasons & coming fall in Washington, when we’d wake with ice on the inside of the tent and in our water bottles. Feet on the trail – dusty, muddy, rocky – and that felt like home.
After the trail I took care of other people’s houses and animals. Two winters on an island in Alaska with a treacherous icy path to the outhouse and a view of white-capped waves and out across the bay. At night, I’d listen to the creak of docks and the groan of boats straining against their lines when the storms blew through. I spent an autumn on the Oregon Coast with Lily, who was my dog for six months and had a head flat as a shovel. I’d curl around her under the blanket as fog blanketed the house. And those houses that weren’t my own, they too felt like home.
And now my trajectory is shaped like a starburst. Out and back, out and back, returning always to my center – to my darling husband and my sweet red house. And it’s here that we have planted plum and pear trees and watched them grow tall; it’s here my Betsy-Tacy books sit on shelves that we have built; it’s here that potted basil grows in the kitchen window during summer; and here that we burrow deeper under the blankets in the winter and listen to the storms blow through leafless trees. And it smells of wild mint and a towering hedge of lilacs, of drywall dust and new paint, and it is home. –Katie Bennett