January 29, 2016

A vision of home


As he lay dying in their Miami Beach condominium, my uncle kept asking his wife when they would go home. Home, of course, meant Ukraine. Perhaps he meant specifically the apartment they had bought in Lviv, where he would never live. Or perhaps he meant something more general  – “home” not just as a place, but as a milieu, an atmosphere, a sensation of familial well-being. He had known little of that.

When my uncle was an infant, his father had died in a Polish prisoner of war camp. The child was shunted from relative to relative. After completing university studies, he was arrested by the Soviets and spent eight years in the labor camps. Released in the amnesty, he married and emigrated first to Poland, then to America.

What is a home? It is more than a house. If the house is like a body, the home is like a body with a soul. Historians and sociologists may tell us that our notions of home change over time, and that our current domestic ideal of privacy and comfort stems in great part from 19th-century bourgeoisie. An exhibition titled  “Home: A Century of Change,” organized in 2011 by the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe in Lviv and presented in a beautifully designed book published the following year, outlines various aspects of this development. But the core concept of “home” as the locus and focus of family life and love has not changed over the centuries.

Nor has the related notion of “homeland” – from Homer’s account of how Odysseus, returning to Ithaca after a 20-year absence some 3,000 years ago, “kissed the good green earth” (Odyssey 13: 403, Robert Fagles trans., 1996), to our own days, when Major Archbishop Myroslav Ivan Lubachivsky, arriving in Lviv in March 1991 after a half-century of exile, kissed the tarmac at Sknyliv.

But you cannot have a home without a house you’ve lived in for some appreciable time. As a child, I found my family’s frequent moves upsetting. In school, I came across a book by British author Roger Lancelyn Green. His family had lived in the same house – Poulton Hall, in Cheshire – for over nine hundred years. I envied him.

Last October I was gratified to learn that my own family had lived in the same house for 240 years. A long, low, whitewashed building with a pitched metal roof, a brick chimney and windows grown askew with time and subsidence, it fronts a muddy street in a small Galician town. Its last inhabitant passed away a few years ago, and now it is damp and dim inside, though a few photographs still hang in frames on its walls and others lie in a file in a table drawer. There are two ovens of the traditional type, on which children or old people could sleep. Outside is a deep well and a vegetable cellar, and a small plot of land with an apple orchard, grapevines and a hayfield. The property comprises less than an acre, probably due to periodic apportionment among family members: the death of my grandfather’s sister in 1936 prompted a judicial division of two plots of land among eight survivors each. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the house and garden in northern California where my grandfather spent his last years in the early 1960s.

Today, family members are building plain brick houses with picture windows and central heating on the parcel. They tell me they will tear down the old house with the crooked windows to make room for a new one. They are not sentimental.

The World War II refugees of my parents’ generation lost their homes forever, and their wanderings from Ukraine to central or western Europe, and usually thence to the Americas or Australia, made “home” impossible until they settled in places like London, New York, Toronto, Buenos Aires or Melbourne. The children born during or after this exodus had a chance to grow up in an atmosphere of stability. Yet before long, American life, too, had become restless. Many of these children grew up to enter occupations requiring frequent moves. Which of their series of habitations was home?

To many, home means the house of childhood. Thoughts of home are often associated with fond memories of family holidays. During World War II, Bing Crosby’s rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” evoked the homesickness of the overseas serviceman. In the following decade, British poet Dylan Thomas’ “Child’s Christmas in Wales” exemplified this kind of domestic nostalgia. Alas, our childhood holiday memories only invite invidious comparison with our own paltry efforts to recreate them wherever we happen to be living at the moment. It is not only that our memories may have filtered out the conflicts and quarrels of the past. It is also that we cannot recreate a child’s wonder at a Christmas tree, or the joy of loving parents and relatives now long departed. The enchantment is gone.

Yet our complaints about our soulless, rootless society sound trivial when we consider the plight of today’s countless refugees, driven from their homes by political, tribal, religious or ethnic persecution. When will they be able to recreate the safe, secure, familial atmosphere of the past? Will their children grow up without ever having experienced “home”?

To the apostle Paul, hounded from place to place, there was no permanent home in this world: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.” (Hebrews 13:14) In his last poem, written a few weeks before his death, Taras Shevchenko, who had spent most of his life away from his native Ukraine, contemplated the afterlife: “In a grove, a grove eternal/I will build a little house/And plant an orchard all around it…” It is a vision of home, as well as of heaven. Perhaps they are the same thing. For my uncle, buried in Lviv, they must have been.