September 11, 2020
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Author Kelly McMasters explores the concept of home and how women are giving new meaning to the word through her latest anthology This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home.
I was seven years old the first time I ran away from home. I packed a nightgown, some pennies, and my diary into a small red cinch-sack and my father helped me strap my bag and favorite bear to my blue bike with some bungee cords, making sure I was balanced.
My plan was to homestead somewhere near the Wildlife Refuge that edged our neighborhood; the summer was mild, and I’d been reading a lot of Little House on the Prairie. There were no tears, and no argument or ill will preceded my decision. I just didn’t quite feel at home, so I decided to leave. My bike had a checkbook-sized license plate that spelled out my name across a slab of taxi-yellow tin and I can still hear the little clanging noise it made as I pedaled away.
Searching for that sense of home is something I’ve continued to do over the past four decades, most recently through the act of co-editing, along with Margot Kahn, an anthology of essays called This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home. Across these 30 essays, women writers explore similar feelings of displacement and belonging.
“It’s taken me a long time—forty-four years—to feel at home somewhere. But I do, finally,” writes novelist Sonya Chung in her essay “Size Matters”. She talks about the coldness of growing up in a too-large house and the distance, both physical and emotional, that space put between her family members. Today, she’s finally found her place in a 452-square-foot studio apartment in Manhattan, where she, her partner, and their large dogs both live and work. She understands the arrangement isn’t conventional, and is maybe even a little crazy, and shares some of the rules they’ve made that makes it work, including “Your chargers are not my chargers,” and “An hour is as long as you can sit, fully clothed, in a bathtub after an argument. Better to walk around the block in your pajamas or find a bench—even late at night, even in the cold.”
Other writers spend their whole lives trying to return to a place that felt right, even when they know it is impossible. In her essay, “Vesica Piscis”, memoirist Leigh Newman writes, “There are places that feel like home and places that feel like where you live. The home-feeling ones ruin you for life.” Newman grew up near Anchorage, and as an adult tried to recreate the wilds of the Alaskan bush in her Brooklyn backyard. To her surprise, it wasn’t the salmon smoker or Alaskan currents she grew in her backyard, but a person who made her feel most at home: an old Italian neighbor named Sal with whom she traded tomatoes over the backyard fence, who was busy trying to recreate his homeland of Sicily in his own garden.
All of the essays in the book are written by women, which seemed more a necessity than a choice in the editorial process. Not because we wanted to suggest that men’s role in creating home is somehow less important, but because we wanted to give space for a new kind of imagining of home. Hillary Clinton once famously remarked, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas.” And yet, it is so much more complicated than that; the black-and-white dichotomy of either/or, stay home or go to work, is the source of much frustration across the pages of this anthology. We hear from Kate Lebo, a baker and writer whose home is the place “where I stirred pots, moved pens, read poems, all without boyfriend or husband or children.” And in her essay, “In the Kitchen”, co-editor Margot Kahn meditates on her slyly radical grandmother, whose life’s work seemed to focus on producing a dedicated rotation of food from the kitchen (“Brisket, kugel, banana cake. Brisket, kugel, banana cake.”), never teaching her children to cook. “Women grooming their daughters to be good housewives teach them how to cook, no? A woman grooming her daughter to be something else in the world would keep her out of the kitchen.” Staying home, leaving home, home-making, and home-breaking are all political acts for women.
Regardless of their choices, mothers figure in nearly every story here. In her essay “Between My Teeth,” novelist Naomi Jackson writes, “I learned how to make home from the women who made me. I’ve taken these lessons with me into the world, carrying them, as Maya Angelou once said, between my teeth, in these years when I’ve learned to call home anywhere I rest my head at night.” And Cowlitz Indian tribe member Elissa Washuta writes in “Undergraduate Admissions Essay Draft”, “I didn’t know, then, that there were places without crickets, without mothers.” Often, home is seen most clearly in its absence.
This is the same for me. That summer day as I pedaled and clanked down the road, my talismans of copper and cloth tucked away in my bag, I didn’t know where I was going. I just knew I needed to leave. And when I returned just after dark that night, after realizing I hadn’t packed any food to eat, home suddenly became a choice. Sometimes you have to leave a place in order to see it.
I can’t pedal back to that same home, with my parents waiting up for me, my place set at the dinner table. But I now keep that little battered license plate on my writing desk to remind me that I can keep pedaling, as long as I need.
Kelly McMasters is the author of Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir From an Atomic Town, and is co-editor of This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home. Her essay in the collection is called “The Leaving Season.”
Photography courtesy Kelly McMasters