Chez Nous

This post originally appeared on my tinyletter, Where is my Mind?

There isn’t a word for “home” in French, in Quebec, not the way there is in English. Say “home” and it immediately conjures up images and memories and feelings. Say “maison” and, well, all you see is a house. When we say we’re going home, we say, “Je vais chez moi.” I’m going to me, to mine.

We’re about to move again. Hopefully, we’ll know where this weekend. While I’m at a conference, the kids and my husband will check out a townhouse/condo that sounds too good to be true, so I don’t want to get my hopes up, but my husband has found everywhere we have ever lived together, and hasn’t steered us wrong. We got really lucky in Lexington, and I guess we’re going to get lucky again. It will be nice to have an address, to get started on registering the kids for school, finding a ballet studio, finding a swim team.

We’re moving at Christmas again. This is less than ideal, but its what circumstances have dictated. The goal is to spend Christmas at the new place. First thing to unpack and go up will be the tree. At least this time, we’ll have furniture. And some time and flexibility. Neither of us are academics anymore, so we’re not trying to pack while also grading and dealing with all of the end-of-semester stress. We’re also in a place where we can actually save some money, so this move won’t go on a credit card. Well, it still will, but we have the cash to pay it off all at once.

The kids are going back and forth about this move. On the one hand, they are excited because they’ll see their parents more. On the other, they have to say goodbye to the life they’ve built for themselves here, to start again, again. My son admitted to me the other night, in tears, that he misses Morehead, wishes he could go back there, to the only house we’ve ever owned, the house he entered for the first time and started to speak again after refusing to for six months. He doesn’t remember how stressed and miserable both his parents were there, how frustrated his sister was in school. He remembers a giant bedroom filled with stuffed animals, a kitchen always filled with our friends, a dog, a neighborhood he was allowed to walk around in because everyone knew us and he felt comfortable, a neighbor’s backyard pool we could walk to in the summer, a neighbor’s garden he could eat as many tomatoes from as he liked, another neighbor who had so many animals and a work room where he could watch things being fixed and built.

My daughter associates Southern California with home. The beach is in her blood, the way large bodies of water are in mine. She wasn’t even two when we moved, but she has vague memories of oceans and warmth and friends and kids and love. The first people who ever held her when she was first born were in SoCal. SoCal was our first home as a married couple, and in a lot of ways, SoCal will always feel like home to me, home to adult me, the place where I really became a grown up. I got my first job, had my first kid, finished my PhD. We figured out how to be married, how to be parents, how to be adults away from our families and support systems. We made it chez nous because we claimed it, came into ourselves, made a family, literally and figuratively, there.

This nostalgia for past homes is just that: nostalgia. All of the friends my son remembers coming to our house have also left Morehead. Same with the majority of our friends in SoCal; this is what academia and grad school does. We move up and move on. Many of our friends went back to their homes – their home states and hometowns and to family and familiarity. They never intended to make a home in Morehead or in SoCal. If we moved back, it wouldn’t be home, not really, not in the way we remember it. But I understand the pull of home; I relax when I can smell the ocean air in SoCal, and I can sink into myself when I hear Québécois all around me.

Along with the Christmas tree, the kitchen and kitchen table need to be set up ASAP. I need us to sit around the table as a family, with my husband having cooked dinner, eating all together. Take-out doesn’t count. It represents a familiarity, a reassurance, that things have not changed. Dad still cooks good food for us, and we still eat together as a family. Next is the art. While my husband tries to figure out how to make all of our furniture fit and where all of our books will go, I stare at the blank walls and decide where the paintings and photographs will live. I will gladly relinquish every cent of the damage deposit for fixing the holes in the wall from putting up our art. Paintings by my mother and grandmother. Photographs by my brother. The print of the place where we got married. Pictures of the kids as tiny versions of themselves. That art project my husband did when he was younger and that his mother had framed that looks like an ass and so lives above one of the toilets.

It makes the place ours. Makes is chez nous.

I’m reading all I can about home right now, how people remember and describe and record home. I’m getting ready to write about one of my homes, where I grew up, the home I had before I moved to the States. I have no idea how I’m going to do this. I keep going back and forth between doing a proper history of the place I’m from to an evocative memoir. The writer in me keeps going for the latter. The academic in me keeps going to the former. I’m sure I’ll settle on something in the middle, closer to evocative than to factual. I have decided that I have to do some research, with the realization hitting me that I will once again be reading hundreds of pages to write one paragraph, like for my dissertation. It both comforted and terrified me.

I know the stories I want to tell, stories of history, but from a specific time and place. I need to go back and write the places I hold inside me, at the edge of the lake, at the edge of a highway, at the edge of the city, at the edge of the island, at the edge of a runway. While the West Island was home, I don’t know if I ever really felt like it was chez moi. But I did grow up there and it was home for a long time, and I’ve been writing about it ever since I left, so it’s time to go back there in body and spirit and write it out.

The editors changed the last lines of my piece on Dorval Airport. I don’t even remember what I had written, but I like them much better now: “For the second time on this journey, I am back home, as home—my other home—recedes into memory.” If only it were that easy. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a chez moi but I have built a chez nous that I can love. We built a chez nous out of love.

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