These days Katie gets very indignant when I say seemingly innocent things such as ‘Let’s go home’, or ‘You left your coat at home’.
‘It’s not my home’, she scowls at me, hands on her hips, making a face that is endearingly comical. ‘Carina is my home’.
And she’s right. Carina is her home. Unlike the other three of us, Katie has lived more of her life aboard Carina than anywhere else. And she misses home terribly. She misses the physical space that is her home. She misses her own bed, the toys she has left behind, her dressing up bag. She has great plans for all the things she plans as soon as she gets back home. She also misses the river where Carina is currently anchored and, at every opportunity, tells anyone who will listen how great the river is. We are on a countdown now to going home – not home to a geographical location, but home to the structure in which we live – our boat.
I’ve pondered the concept of home a lot over the years. What does home mean to me? And how have my conceptualisations of home changed over time?
I grew up in the middle of Ireland in the house where generations of my family were born and died. My family has been living in our little cottage outside Edenderry since the 1880s. Growing up, half of our neighbours were Daddy’s cousins and the other half had also been in the area for generations. My home extended beyond the house to the fields, hedgerows, trees and woodlands in all directions. I knew it all intimately. I knew the names of the fields, the names of some individual trees, the names and stories of the people who had once lived in houses that were now mere piles of rubble overgrown with ivy and ash trees. My personal history extended back to long before I was born, as I played and walked with my dog and picnicked in places imbued with stories passed on to me by my Nana and other elderly relatives. My Nana was born in 1900 and my grandfather (who died in 1942) was born in 1875, so I am very conscious of being only two generations away from the Ireland I learned about in history lessons at school.
I suspect I will never know any place as well as I know my first home. I dwelled in it so deeply, it seeped into my soul, like bog water darkening the bones of Seamus Heaney’s Bog Queen. I grew up and I went away, but always I returned home. I lived in Japan for three years and though I had a wonderful time there, it never felt like home. Perhaps because my closest friends were other expats, or because I lived alone, or because I lacked the language to effectively communicate, I always felt like an outsider. There were particular places I loved – a shrine, a mountain path – but I never got beyond their external beauty or peacefulness to know their history and their meaning to local people. Places lacked depth for me.
Nunavut was different. Arviat, on the west coast of Hudson Bay, became home when I lived there in the early 2000s. Unlike Japan, my closest friends were local people, long term residents, families, people of all ages. The people I lived with became my family. My research explored the relationship between the people of Arviat and the sea. I learned what the place meant to people. The landscape and seascape around Arviat became imbued with history and memory and each time I went on the land or to sea, places became more meaningful to me as my memories and experiences became entwined with the stories my companions and friends told me.
I left Ireland when I was 22 years old and have lived there on and off in the intervening twenty years. And in that time, my home has changed and I have changed. The physical landscape has changed – more infrastructure, more urban and rural development, and more people. I no longer know the places of my childhood as well as I once did. And where once I knew everyone I met on the road or on the streets of Edenderry, these days there are so many people I don’t know. I have also lost many close family members whose presence was implicit in my sense of home – Daddy, my uncle Tom, my aunt Lily, my uncle Gerry. Home resided in them. I still have a huge vast extended family back in Ireland, including my mother and sister. But these days, given what eager travellers they are, I’m as likely to hang out with Mammy and Antoinette in places other than Edenderry, and so my sense of family and my sense of home as place have become unglued from each other. We’re family no matter where we are.
Which I guess brings me to the most remarkable thing that happened to cause me to change my conception of home. I got married and had a family of my own. In the four and a half years Julian and I were together before Lily was born, we lived in four different places – Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Littleport, Cambridge. As we uprooted from place we became rooted to each other. And when the girls were still very young, we decided to buy a boat and set sail. And if you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that we don’t stay in any place for very long.
So, where is home now? I’ve had this discussion with Lily and Katie quite a lot, especially this summer, when we’ve become uprooted from our boat and have moved temporarily back to the UK. Home, for me, is wherever the four of us are together. It’s not a physical place. Our roots are in each other. I consider Carina to be our home, but she will likely not be our home forever. No matter where we live, or what type of accommodation we live in, home for me is the comfort and stability of being together as a family. And that’s why, when I hang out with my mum and sister on the boat, or in a hotel room, in New York or in Vienna, we’re home, because we’re with each other.
Over the years the symbols of home have become less important. I’m less concerned about being Irish or being from Kildare or Edenderry than I used to be. That kind of nationalism and tribalism has lost much of its meaning for me now. My memories of place – the home of my childhood – remain strong and inform the way I live my life today. I suspect no place will ever affect me as strongly and deeply as the place where I grew up. Home used to be people-rooted-in-place. But these days, home is far less about place and far more about people. These days home is that ever moving location where I live with my family.