The Germans have a word- unheimlich– whose literal translation is unhomely. Freud wrote an entire book on it. It’s most commonly translated as uncanny– close, but no cigar. And Freud always needed a big cigar… unhomely, the adjective… Unhome, the noun. Perhaps, an actual place you can go to…
I was about eight. One day my parents said they had something important to tell us: my two older sisters and me. Since it was especially important, they took us to a park to tell us there. I thought they were getting a divorce. We sat in one of those open-air shelters, the kind with a dry concrete floor and wooden roof where you can set food, purses and seniors, while everyone plays horseshoes or fills up water balloons outside.
My parents told us we were moving. Huh? Moving was about as abstract to me then as death is to me now; I didn’t understand. All I knew is that I’d be leaving my friends behind, and that sucked.
We were living in Byron, a tiny spot in northern Illinois. My existence up to that point was idyllic. Our home sat on the edge of a forest where my sisters and I would play, borrowing magic from the trees and deer, badgers and bears. OK, there weren’t any bears, but my dad would talk with the owls- at night- his gloved hands raised up to his mouth. Who who, whooo… (who who, whooo)… Who who, whooo… (whoooo)
They said we were moving to a suburb of Chicago. Frankfort. I was made more optimistic by the promise that there’d be a pond in our backyard where I could play hockey in the winter and catch fish in the summer.
I remember staying in a hotel in a town outside of Frankfort for the weekend before we could officially move into our new home. One night, my dad brought us kids to an arcade called, Odyssey Fun World. It was bigger, brighter, and louder than anything back home in Byron. I was amazed. My quaint memories of going to the Benjamin Franklin General Store with my mom, where she’d buy me candy cigarettes in little cardboard boxes with dinosaurs and fighter jets on them (which I’d invariably chain-chew) were vanquished by the thrill I had at the arcade games spitting out an unending chain of tickets that bought me, in the end, a Chinese finger trap.
Our new neighborhood was a newly built subdivision surrounded by flat cornfields called Heritage Knolls. Ironically, it had neither heritage nor knolls. The small streets meandered to give you the sense you were on a country drive, when in fact you were driving through a tightly regulated haven for those thinking they had made it: The American Dream, suburbs.
In the middle of the neighborhood was a rather large retention pond. I didn’t know at the time that a retention pond is a convenient fix to the drainage problem that inevitably comes from substituting a natural watershed with a hundred plus homes whose heavily fertilized lawns fill the retention pond with all sorts of carcinogenic goodies.
We pulled into our driveway and stepped inside. It was (to me) huge, impressive. Meeting you at the front door was a wooden staircase which led up to a platform that you could then turn right to go down another staircase to the kitchen or turn left to go up to a balcony which overlooked the family room, which itself was two stories tall with big pane glass windows looking outside. In my parent’s bathroom was a jacuzzi.
But the house was empty; none of our things were there- they were in a moving truck, destined to meet us in a few hours. For the time being, we unpacked the few boxes we had with us. From one, I grabbed my toys: the green plastic army men. I went into the den and started to play on the ledge by the window. I think my dad and sisters went out, and my mom was in another part of the house. Then it happened.
I started to play, but could not. A terrible feeling grew from my stomach up into my throat. I felt like I a hot air balloon and somebody cut the rope tethering me to the ground. The toys in my hand became completely unfamiliar. I looked at the room I sat in; its wood, walls, and color were strange to me. Outside, across the street, black windows on houses practically identical to this one stared back at me. I grabbed onto my toys even harder, played desperately, hoping they would become familiar, again. It was my first time unhome.
Maybe it wasn’t. The first time I went unhome was probably a sleepover at a friend’s house- but I could call my mom to pick me up. Not this time. I had to undergo the feeling. Things got better. At my first day of school I was invited to a birthday party and made three friends. Frankfort quickly felt like home. Really, it was for the best that I left Byron at the age I did. A backwoodsy town is idyllic for a child, but demoralizing for a young person who intuits a greater world.
And it wasn’t my last time unhome. First night of college. First night on my bike trip. First time in any of my apartments. Travelling abroad. To overcome the feeling, I rely on rituals and routines, prayers and talismans, to get me through it. Big boy army toys.
I haven’t always been that skillful. To get rid of the feeling my first night of college, I got wasted. So wasted I came back that night, my keys lost, and slept outside my door. Welcome Unhome.