Coming home for Thanksgiving wasn't a real return; it just didn't feel complete. I was in a space between the spaces I inhabited, trying to figure out where exactly home was and having to do so in just a few days. My dorm had grown a crop of memories from the first few weeks of fall quarter, and my room in Pennsylvania was just sort of... barren. Obviously I recognized the desk, the bookshelf, the dresser, but they didn't feel as normal as before I left. The room seemed amazingly large and quiet in comparison to my Northwestern living quarters. When I boarded the plane to O'Hare, would my seatmate ask me, "Going home or visiting?" What would I say back?
Winter break provided a longer stretch of time to answer this question. Flying away from Chicago seemed like a blessing. Finals week had me desperate to stop working and start relaxing, and the piles of notebooks and papers in my dorm definitely weren't bringing me any peace. I packed a gigantic suitcase, leaving half of my clothes in the standard-issue tan drawers, jamming the other half into travel-ready blue and gray. And I went.
After a shared Uber, a layover in Detroit and a delayed plane (ugh), I reached Philadelphia International Airport and found my mom. As we pulled away from the airport, I sat in the front seat, hearing her ninety-nine questions, just absurdly grateful to see her face. When we finally turned into the familiar driveway, I saw my house. Too tired to think deeply about the meaning of home, I ate some cereal, bothered my brother, and went to bed.
My room slowly became familiar again. Shirts and bras littered the floor, stacks of books rose on my dresser, my suitcase collected dust behind my desk. I luxuriated in sleeping until 10 a.m. without fear of an early morning class, and I showered in a bathroom that was all mine. I was happy, having a mostly uneventful break. Besides a trip to Pittsburgh to visit my grandparents, I stayed close to my house. I watched a lot of “Gilmore Girls” with my mom and negotiated car sharing with my brother and sister. I only saw my dad a few times.
Eventually, January 2 came, and I had to go back to school. It was hard to go. Even though I was starting to get a little bored at home, it had become comfortable again. My college world had given me an array of new friends and a major amount of control over my schedule, but it didn't have one thing that I craved: history. A context.
In high school, I had friends whom I had known since we were six years old. I knew what to expect from them and vice versa, and it was comforting to be so secure. Wildcat Welcome thrust my old friendships from 3D cookie baking at Julia’s to 2D Facebook Messenger bubbles, and it introduced hundreds of new possibilities. As much as I loved the CRC friends I’ve met, it was just plain hard to start over. It wasn’t home at first. However, as passing faces became more familiar, I started to feel better, because I was creating that context. I started knowing what to expect from them and vice versa.
Three weeks into winter quarter, I’ve realized that the reason my childhood home or college home has felt weird to me at different times is because I'm different. I'm a separate person from the one who shared a room with a teddy bear and her sister's old clothes. Now, I feel pride looking out my window at tour groups, knowing that I belong here, with the new context I’ve made. I can go back to Philadelphia with an invisible suitcase of Northwestern classmates, clubs and memories.
But I will never be able to write off my mother’s excitement when she sees me home, or the strength of my father’s hug. Some days, I just miss my old theater directors, or I wish I could use my mom’s kitchen. There isn’t a clear answer to that casual question, “Going home or visiting?” Somehow, I don’t think my theoretical seatmate would appreciate a speech on the effect of relationship-building and memory on place. Here it is. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, wherever you find yourself in this ever-shifting inquiry.