“How long are you home for?”
I’ve heard this question many times, every year, sometimes several times a year, for decades.
It always causes me to pause, to wonder.
I grew up on an island in the far north of the UK. On it, we had the most northerly house, beach and post office. We had long summer days, and non-existent nights. In the winter, darkness came with us to school. It crept in through the windows before the last bell of the school day and met us at the doorway as we headed home.
I grew up on an island in the Atlantic. On Sundays, we traipsed westward through heathery hills, carrying bags filled with sandwiches and thermos flasks, along paths forged by sheep. We passed through a green valley to the rocky beach where, over a century before, our ancestors had fished the dangerous waters in boats that were far too small for the purpose.
Men died trying to make a living from the sea.
Women died in childbirth. Children died from coughing blood, from wasting away.
We climbed the steep slopes from the valley, slopes where our ancestors had grown hay, cabbage, potatoes and turnips. The land still bore the scars of their toils: the straight lines of furrows dug in the steep hillsides, but long since gone fallow. The stones of their houses had been beaten by the wind, and were sliding back into the land they came from. The air still carried the sounds of our ancestors’ cries, echoing through the seagulls’ wail, whistling down the valleys as my father told their stories.
As he spoke, I saw families trudging through the hillsides, carrying their few possessions with them, leaving these hills forever. Their landlord wanted the hills for sheep to graze on, and the tenants had to leave.
Our great-great-grandmother was heavily pregnant when she walked for miles through the moors to sleep in someone else’s barn. Our great-grandmother was a toddler, trudging along beside her. Our great-great-grandfather tied up his fishing boat and followed them, helping his elderly mother climb the steep slopes.
I grew up on an island in the North Sea. At the top of the island, where Britain’s most northerly lighthouse flashes its warnings to passing ships, the waters of the Atlantic wash against those of the North Sea. With no ceremony or salute, their waves break into each other, merging into one. Waves that lap the shores of Newfoundland in Canada, swirl past Greenland on their way to Shetland and keep going until they splash into Norway’s fiords.
And on these visits to the island where I grew up, I am reminded both of the continuousness of life, and of its frailty. My father, who told the stories of our ancestors, joined them over two years ago. The house where he was born, and where I grew up, is visible from his grave with its red roses: plastic roses to withstand the hurricane force winds that blast the island several times each winter.
Those winds are blowing now as I write, whistling around the sloping ceilings of my old bedroom. Memories blow in with the wind, and blow away again. Memories of lying awake in my grandparents’ spare room, hearing the wind howl. It must have howled round this house then too, but I don’t remember it.
Memories too of playing hide and seek in cornfields, climbing our wind-blasted tree, playing follow the leader along the top of dry-stone dykes. Of sitting by the coal fire, watching flames dance and leap.
I left the islands when I was nineteen, and it’s unlikely I will ever live here again. I sit on the ferry from one island to another and I remember my student days, coming home, feeling grown-up, cool, bringing innovation. Those days are gone, and returning reminds me (as if I needed reminding) that I am no longer young. Returning also reminds me my father is gone, in a way that feels more final somehow. His absence is more obvious than when I am not here, when I phone or Skype. His absence is everywhere here. In his shed, in an empty chair, in the car he used to drive that now waits for visits from my sisters or me.
Life is frail. Life in the smaller sense, the lives of individuals.
Yet, this island also reminds me of life in its bigger sense; in the valleys and the hills, I feel ancestors around me, can almost see them walking through their lives centuries ago. We help clear up my aunt’s old house and find a velvet suit stacked with bags of old sheets in a disused room. She remembers it belonged to her great-aunt, is probably a hundred years old.
Life goes on, will always go on.
And I wonder again, where is home? Is it where I grew up, where I feel some sense of roots, even though I know I will never live here again? Or is it where I live now? Is it where we might move to in a few years time?
Or is it somewhere else?
As write I realise home isn’t any place. It’s within me. It’s being fully alive. I take home with me, wherever I go.
So the answer to that question, “How long are you home for?” is – always.
I’m always home.