Questioning home through essay assignments

by Marina Tinone

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Write about your most comfortable place. It doesn’t have to be your home, though many choose to write about their home. It can be your favorite place, a place you feel at peace, or a place that you want to return to. Why is it important to you? Think of the senses; what do you see, hear, smell, touch, taste when you are in this place? Remember: show, don’t tell.

I tried to think of my parents’ house. It looks like a breeze ruffling the leaves on oak trees, it sounds like geese landing in the water. It smelled like gasoline and chrysanthemums. It felt like searing blacktop on my bare soles and tasted like cold tap water filtered by the reservoir uphill. But somehow, I could always question this small colonial family house, I could always question my bed, my room, my house, my neighborhood and know that it was the image of an unintentional forever. Location, location, location– real estate for a followed life, not necessarily a created one.

Instead, I wrote about my grandmother’s apartment in São Paulo. My grandparents moved from Rio to this São Paulo apartment when my mother began high school, and have stayed there ever since. I chose this place because, although it is a (relatively) spacious apartment, I remember being cramped: elbow to elbow with every member of my mother’s extended family (all five pairs of my mother’s aunts and uncles and all five million of my mother’s cousins and the kids of these cousins) eating feijoada, drinking Guarana, cutting pudim for dessert. Surrounded by family and the food that I only get to eat when I am in Brazil, when I am… home?

Is home the place where people you know as your family (but only meet once every three summers) greet you in the simplest of Portuguese sentences, minding your American accent and clipped answers, kindly making strained conversation:

“Então, onde você mora? Sua mãe me disse que vocês moram perto da Nova Iorque.”

“Eu moro em Connecticut.”

Connecticut? O que é Connecticut? Uma cidade?”

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“I don’t understand what you mean– I, well, I was trying to write the location essay, and I couldn’t understand what you meant by a location shaping the way a person thinks.”

“Well, how about if I say it this way,” my English teacher had responded to me, “A location just shapes the way you think. For example, let’s pretend someone spent their entire life in a cupboard. Wouldn’t that shape the way you think, the way you perceive the world? You would be closed in all the time; maybe you wouldn’t know of another possibility larger than where you were. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah… I think so. Yeah, I think that helped. Thank you.”

I left my teacher’s office fuming. His explanation made no sense. Weren’t those impressions– the feeling of being closed in, the feeling that you didn’t have a world beyond your cupboard– weren’t all of these reactions just projections based on the person themself? If I lived in a cupboard my whole life I would wind up with some sort of psychosis, granted, but Harry Potter lived in a cupboard under the stairs for eleven years and turned out just fine. The cupboard, the location, could not be at fault in affecting anyone’s character development. The individual is more important than the location because it is the person who shapes their sense of place.

In sixteen-year-old retaliation, I gave this teacher a half-assed essay (read: void of any sort of argument) about São Paulo’s Guarulhos International Airport, describing the luggage claim in unwarranted detail: gray concrete gray support beams gray mood gray eyeballs glazed over from a sleepless flight lulled by the suitcases drifting before my eyes. It looks like forgotten purpose, an in-between state. It sounds like my mother’s now hushed Portuguese reminding me not to speak my English too loud in the Brazilian airport and the scraping of the (now retrieved) suitcase closer to my body. It smelled like sweat and slept-in clothes; my unwashed gringa face trying to hide behind my Brazilian passport. It felt like my heart pounding, the expectation of finally finding your grandparents in the waiting area and tasted like the sweet success of the small, little things in life: my mother embracing her father, the two of them smiling in a way that I only see when we first arrive in Brazil. My mother, she is finally home.

Once we’ve left Brazil and returned to our American suburb, I asked my mother where she thought home was, and if she ever missed her parents.

“In the beginning, when you and your brother were little and we had just moved here, I missed them, yeah. But little by little, I stopped missing them so much. I got older, you two started going to school… And for me, home is where the family is.”

“What about Grandma and Grandpa then?”

“It’s different, now. You and your brother and Dad are more important now.”

“Would you ever consider moving back?”

“No… I don’t think so. Dad’s job is here. That’s why we moved. You were born here. Maybe we’d move. But I don’t think we would be going back to Brazil. We’re here now.”

And I can’t really tell if she is happy about it. Resigned might be the better word. But Connecticut, becoming American– it’s no sentencing either.

My resigned mom sits on the couch, sipping iced tea. She faces the window, observing the New England summer: the trapped humidity masking the rays of the never-setting July sun. Long cicada days and short firefly nights. Droning lawnmowers in the morning, croaking frogs in the evening. The green leaves covered in the dust of pollen. I remember, my mom would tell me, back when she grew up in Rio, she would spend her summers playing at the beach, the warm Atlantic surrounding her body, the fine sand and the rhythm of waves. I wonder if she cares that her daughter, whom she named after her beloved sea, did not actually grow up to experience home– ocean, Brazil, a childhood– the way she did.

I wonder what my mom thinks, if she cares at all, that her daughter’s first language was not her home language; how my mother has to translate her favorite bossa nova songs– invariably about water and beaches– to her Anglophone daughter. What home did she lose when she raised a daughter who can, at best, sputter and trip over her mother’s tongue?

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This description [of a place] should be precise and engaging, and it should convey a clear sense of the place’s importance not only for the writer of the piece, but also for the public who might be reading it. Remember to use as much concrete detail as possible, but also to subtly signpost your argument, so that it becomes clear that the place described feeds into a larger point of cultural/social/political import.

The English 120 syllabus taught me that I will never escape the Place Essay. I could already hear the cupboard explanation in my head. I still hated it. Sometimes, you can never escape the concept of home.

I find myself in my parents’ house. It’s past midnight. The August sky is pitch black against the stars and the fireflies mirroring them on the ground below. My bedroom door is closed, but I can still hear my dad’s snores down the hall. My parents are asleep. I am wide awake, surrounding myself in cardboard boxes, packing my childhood away, readying myself to leave the house.

College admissions pamphlets like to tout their institution as a “home away from home”; I was advised, once in college, to make sure I create a new life for myself at the institution even though I lived so close to… Home.

In my childhood house, the one my parents haven’t moved away from just yet, my family never bothered to decorate the rooms. The house is purely functional: a kitchen table for eating in the kitchen. A bed for sleeping in the bedroom. A couch to put in front of the TV in the TV room. My friends would often remark at how sparse and empty our entire house was, heck, every wall of our house is the same off-white color. Why paint the walls of a home you may leave?

My mother had intended for the house and all our possessions to be ready to pack and load into a moving van at a moment’s notice, trying to keep ourselves from acquiring to many things. Instead, we stayed in the house too long– our empty spaces are now accumulated with all the things that might be useful someday. Surrounded by supposed utility, the prospect of a future within this house– it’s a type of home. But it is my parents’ future, not quite mine.

My grandmother’s apartment, unlike my parents’ now cluttered house, has tudo no seu próprio lugar, much to the detriment of my mother who had so aspired to keep everything just as neat as her mother. When my family goes… Home to my grandmother’s place, I, too, feel this sense of belonging. My grandmother’s fussing about the kitchen, instructing me to wash the dishes, to put the leftover feijoada and pudim away after all the guests leave, serving my grandfather café in a little espresso cup. Everything in its proper place. A granddaughter trying to sit beside her grandparents for lunch by sliding in an extra, mismatching chair around the kitchen table that was meant for just the two of them, the kitchen table that had been bought after my mother left home. Asleep in what used to be my mother’s old room, I realize: working myself into my mother’s past and her previous life as a daughter, it is not home. There is no solace in history when I have to be the future.

It was a quiet night when I packed for college, alone, as my parents slept. And my bare bedroom walls and my hardwood floor littered with boxes, with memories, with pieces of my home, my past, lying in bins and wastebaskets, as if I had to separate the good from the bad, the confusion from the clarity. As if I had to speak softly about myself to hide my home, as if I had to make excuses or utter apologies in strained Portuguese to tell you where my mother was from. Alone in my room, I return to the luggage claim, readying for what awaits me. But this time, I choose the baggage I wish to keep. Which to leave behind in the gray liminal spaces between conflations of home. This time, I can leave speaking as loudly as I dare, in the language that I know is fully mine. This time, I can create a life. And this time, I can create my home.

The freedom to create a home, despite all the confusion, despite who we were before, despite who our parents were, despite all the difficulties we have in defining what it all means and what it will mean to us unknown futures. It’s all anyone can ask for, home.

Home. It’s all anyone would ever need. Why would anyone take this right away?