Every time I come home to the States, I find myself pontificating about the meaning of home. And thus far, this trip is no exception. So for anyone who is sick of reading about that particular topic, I’m sorry. But writing serves a lot of purposes in my life, and one of them is helping me sort out my feelings. And fair warning, folks: I have a lot of feelings yet to be sorted.
Because my grandmother lives in northern California, I tend to find myself in the Bay Area every few years or so. Every time my toes touch the ground there, I am reminded of just how much I love that part of the world. For years, I dreamed of one day being able to afford to live in the Bay Area. It’s hard for me to imagine how anyone could not love it. And even though I’ve never actually lived in California, its connection to my parents means that I feel like, in some weird way, it’s my home, too…the same way if you ask my husband where in Saudi Arabia he’s from, he’ll immediately say Madinah, even though he’s never lived in Madinah. But it’s the area where his parents are from.
As I think I’ve mentioned before, my parents both grew up in the Bay Area. My father’s family members are Ozarkians from way back, but during the late 1930s, my Grandma and Grandpa Hunter packed up and moved from Missouri to California, and that’s where they raised their family. But every summer, they loaded up the car, got on Route 66, and drove back to Missouri for a couple weeks in order to visit all the relatives that were still there.
My dad grew up dreaming of moving to Missouri, the place where his parents were raised, just like I grew up dreaming of moving to California, the place where my parents were raised. In his heart, he was always a country boy, and he knew he wanted to end up back in the Ozarks. A few years after my parents were married in 1969, my dad came home one day and said, “Pack up, Emma. We’re moving to Missouri.”
Well, my mom had never been to Missouri. She’d never lived anywhere other than California. But she loved my dad. So off they went, cross-country, landing in a town with a population less than half the size of her high school graduating class.
At first, my mom was not in her element in the Ozarks. She remembers that as she drove to the next town over, she gripped the steering wheel and sweated with nerves because she was so completely unaccustomed to driving on roads that weren’t packed with cars. The emptiness of the highway unsettled her.
About six months after she and my dad moved to Missouri, my mom decided she was done. She wasn’t happy in Missouri, and my dad wasn’t happy that she wasn’t happy in Missouri. She caught a flight back to California and had no intention of returning to the Ozarks that my dad loved so much. She got a job at a Nissan dealership and was settling back into life as a California girl (“I remember I was sitting in the office at the dealership when they announced on TV that the Vietnam War was over,” she told me). But about four months later, my dad showed up at my grandparents’ house in California, where my mom was living. He missed her, and he wanted her in Missouri with him. She loved him. So back to the Ozarks she went. And she’s been there ever since.
It’s interesting to watch my mom in California as we visit my grandmother. It’s her home, and yet, it isn’t at all. Her childhood home in San Mateo has long since been sold (it’s staggering how much that tiny house is now worth), and now my grandmother lives north of San Francisco, in Sonoma County. My mom has so many memories in California. It is her childhood. She still says that she would be happy living there. (I mean, besides it being where she grew up, it certainly doesn’t hurt that northern California is astoundingly beautiful…and San Francisco sourdough bread is just heavenly.)
But Missouri is her home now.
I wonder about this. It hurts my heart a little bit to think that maybe this is how I will feel about Missouri someday—once my home, still could be if I really wanted it to be, but just isn’t anymore. Right now, I don’t feel that way. I feel like Missouri is my second home—the place where I spend a minority of my time, to be sure, but still, always, home.
I think part of the reason that I’m so nervous about this potential evolution is because I can feel it happening in small ways already. This is my fourth return trip to the States since I moved to Riyadh in 2012, and for the first time, on this trip, I didn’t come home with a list of foods I planned to eat when I landed because I missed them so much. Instead, before I left, I found myself making requests to my mother-in-law for Saudi dishes that I knew I wouldn’t be able to find in the States. When I got here, I was struck by what a nutritional void so much of the food was. Instead of being thrilled that I had access to Dr. Pepper at every gas station soda fountain, I kept thinking about how the food in Riyadh always makes me feel full and nourished, not just full. I kept excitedly anticipating late April, when Mr. Mostafa will land here and get into the kitchen and start cooking some kabsa for me and people I love.
Granted, I don’t think I’m anywhere near seeing Missouri with only the nostalgic admiration that my mom has for California. I still have too much of an emotional connection to Missouri beyond it simply being where my parents live, and I don’t intend to be letting that go any time soon. Rather, I feel like I’m steadily moving toward feeling like Riyadh is home, just as much is Missouri is. The other home. My other home. I’m cool with that. Even if neither home looks like northern California.