“A sad gray place.” These words were spoken to me as a way of describing what my Czech family’s homeland had become. A few years after the Velvet Revolution, this seemed apt. But not everywhere. Approaching Oucmanice, the village with the original Lenoch house, I had rather an impression of prosperity, industry – dare I say it – hope. What follows, taken from Chapter Eight in Better You Go Home, conveys some of that impression:
“Cresting a steep incline, we pass fields bordered with a windrow of birch. Their fall yellow leaves quake in the breeze. We come upon Oucmanice on the down side of the hill… Most of the slope-framed homes have been freshly stuccoed and white-washed. Flower boxes adorn windows. Roaming chickens poke into blooming gardens. A woman wearing a beaded vest and white blouse, her hair twisted into ram-horn braids, leans out of an open window and gives a rug a few smart whacks with a broom.”
Imagine my surprise when, approaching the Lenoch house, what I found was this:
“At the low end of town… slate roof is sloughing tiles. Sections of stucco have peeled from the walls, exposing mud and straw chinking. Gaps in the chinking remind me of the “chilly bands of air” from Milada’s train story. I imagine trapped people looking furtively out at us… You can’t help but catch the eye-watering smell from the outhouse.”
All shutters were tightly closed. The wizened woman who answered our knock accused me of being with the police, swore that she loved “liberated countries,” then slammed the door in my face. Two deadbolts slammed home. Thunk, thunk.
Decrepit, decaying, smelly. Such was the Lenoch home. Sad? Perhaps. Yet, centuries old. So it had fallen on hard times. Its very presence spoke of qualities that endure, that give to a place and to its people an abiding sense of identity, for better or worse.
I was raised mostly in Security, Colorado. A suburban enclave, at that time, full of young families. Many first-time homeowners. There for fresh starts. No sense of place and that precisely was the point. No one was from there. Homes practical ranch-style, stucco, add-on carports converted to garages. Plenty of sun. Mountains nearby. Cost of living reasonable. But was it home? Could what started off as a bedroom community every really be home?
The closest to home that endures in my imagination is my grandfather and Czech grandmother’s home on Fruitland Blvd. in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The basement where he showered after work and kept his stacks of quarters. The attic with the hanging washer that when pulled dropped down a ladder. The crucifix on the wall in the hallway. The garage where he hung his tools in precisely drawn spots. The long green yard with its vegetable patch. The yard backed onto a vast city park with endless possibilities to roam. In my child’s mind, this place spoke of order and of fertility. It ordered my sense of what was allowable – honesty, spare words, tamped emotions, care of tools, thrift that was habit, the belief that fresh homegrown produce was the best thing next to God – and served as a model of what Security was not. Security was arid. A way station. One color, tawny, prevailed most months of the year. People moved.
As an adult, I learned that my father had been raised in a farmhouse. The tidy bungalow with its amazing veggie patch had been built by my grandfather later in life and held no special value for my father. It was not home to him. What could have been home to him was long gone.
What is home? How attached to place is home? How much of our identity is wrapped up in a sense of home? I visited every village I could find that had Czech relatives. Why? To lock in my sights the place that lent them their sense of identity. I went there to seek what was missing for me, what in vain I hungered for.
The title of this piece, “Where is my home?” is also the Czech national anthem. Ironically the one place on earth that speaks to me enduringly of home was for them a stolen home, a ruined home, no home at all.
When not living in Europe, I have lived my adult life in Western states. Why? Precisely to escape allowing my identity to be formed by the very sort of unyielding places I find so attractive. This I think is a paradox that many Americans live with. We seek in vain what in our sublunary lives we avoid. We are caught between worlds. Never entirely home here or there.