Despite being brought up by generous, loving people, I never felt at home in the suburban tract house where I misspent my youth. My dad was a slick-talking charmer who hadn’t energy for much beyond drinking, gambling, and chasing women, though he was, in his way, generous and loving, too. He was around on occasion, and I suppose he could’ve offered me more direction (and I received more than either my brother or sister did), but his passions didn’t leave a lot of time for children. It hardly matters now; I’ve long since put thoughts of things that might have been to rest.
But maybe his indifference contributed to a lifelong current of unease. The fire-hazard of a flophouse where I dreamed away my college days? That wasn’t home. The room I rented from my artist-landlady in Paris? A way station. The succession of futons on the Lower East Side in the 1980s and part of the ‘90s? Those crash-pads, where I despaired that nothing more suitable would ever present itself, were layovers. That sense of ill-fitting was bound to ease a bit after I got married and our daughter was born, but I have always felt like I was living between my last place and my next place. The restless soul is never home.
I traveled far and wide this summer: upstate to Rochester, site of the suburban tract house, then way out west to Vancouver Island on Canada’s Pacific edge, and most recently, to Ireland to fulfill a family obligation.
I’ll make plain the purpose of the last trip in a minute, but first let me say this for our Celtic brothers and sisters: They were the least guilty of the foot-dragging fecklessness I encountered wherever I found myself, the inability, or maybe simply unwillingness, to execute the simplest of tasks, ineptitude salted with a pound of indifference.
No place was worse than the city in which I reside, New York. Where the escalators are frozen and uncollected garbage overflows its receptacles. Where somewhere up the line the reason for the delayed subway ride is “under investigation.” Where, in a neighborhood playground abandoned by children, three grown men smoke pot in the middle of the day. Nobody seems capable of correcting these failures, or even cares about them. The void of concern is alienating—to the native, the transplant, the tourist. There’s nothing welcoming about the city, nothing comforting. There is nothing that feels like home.
Back to the Emerald Isle, and Shannon airport. An officer thumbed my wife’s passport while we cleared immigration. “Welcome home, Ellen,” he said, his accent lilting. Ellen was born in Dublin, and she lived in Ireland when she was a baby. That information was printed on the document’s first page. “How long do you plan on being home?”
We had come to settle the last business of my father-in-law’s life. I’ve written about Colm Harty before, this wanderer, this rover, born in Glasgow to a young unwed mother and adopted by an Irish doctor who brought the baby back with him upon his return. When the doctor died unexpectedly, young Colm was adopted into a clan in Kerry, moved with that family to Dublin, subsequently struck out on his own for Liverpool, and Boston, then back to Ireland, ultimately settling in Canada. Now we were returning his remains, in an urn, to his final resting place, an ancestral tomb that dates to at least 1822, in a village called Ballyheigue, his first home.
The night before the memorial we—Ellen and myself, our daughter Teresa, and Eamon, our impossibly handsome young nephew—were sorting out the literary selections we intended to have read the following day, and the music we wanted to hear, songs that reflected Colm’s experience and taste. The coda we chose for the ceremony was a poem by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium.” Here is the last verse.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
The poem’s narrator is considering his soul’s transition “out of nature,” into the infinite. He is home. As for me, that evening I was in a hotel room in an obscure foreign location. But I was living within my family more surely and more securely than ever before. What beyond family speaks more closely of home?
The next morning, we drove to the cemetery, a hilly patch of earth overlooking the Atlantic, tied to myth, mysticism, and hundreds of years of history dating back to the 1649 Cromwell uprising. I knew how I got there, and why I was standing on that hallowed ground, and any dissonant sensation provoked by the idea that I could never—never—have imagined myself in such a place, disappeared. Home isn’t the address where your tax bills find you. Home is the place where—unlike, say, my inconstant father—you fulfill responsibility and honor commitment.
Off by myself for a lonesome minute or two, I watched the wind-whipped, white-tusked waves crashing near the horizon. Surrounded by crumbling headstones, the dates on the scattered plaques rendered illegible by the passing centuries, it occurred to me that in this moment, amid the dust of the Irish dead in this kingdom by the sea, I was home. Home with Yeats and with Colm in this slice of eternity. Home.