By Charlotte Donlon
After the movers unloaded all of the boxes and helped me arrange the few pieces of furniture in our living room that could actually fit in the space that was one third of what we were used to, I sat down on one of my beloved turquoise upholstered swivel chairs as the April sunlight slanted through the plantation shutters and waited for the tears. But I didn’t cry. I had cried every other time we moved to a new home. I had grieved for days. When we moved to this new home, I was smiling instead. Maybe it was because I knew we were supposed to move. For various reasons, staying where we were before was no longer an option.
During the subsequent days when I thought I would be moping around and weeping over our old home and old neighborhood, I unpacked. I figured out how to fit most of our kitchen items in the space available. I rearranged the living room four times to see if I could make the room appear larger than it was. I put together a pair bookcases for the dining area—one for a portion of my books, one for the rest of our kitchen items. I created a Pinterest board where I posted ideas for balcony furniture and lamps for the upstairs den.
When we moved to Homewood from Crestwood two years ago, I said goodbye to a home and a place full of memories and moments that I knew might fade over time. The ever-present piles of children’s books scattered around the floor in front of the large bookcase in the family room. The birthday parties for my kids. The Sunday morning brunches with our church small group. The setting for my first and second manic episodes and periods of deep depression—where I knew a sort of desperation during my illness that I had never known and where I knew a kind of healing that had never been necessary. The streets I walked with my husband and kids. The neighbors we knew and loved for 10 years. The trains passing by and the planes flying overhead. The naiveté of thinking our presence in the city would make any difference to its residents.
When we moved to Homewood from Crestwood two years ago, we moved from the heart of the city of Birmingham to the heart of a suburb on the edge of Birmingham, from a place many perceive as unsafe to a place many perceive as safe, from a home next to train tracks in a mixed-income neighborhood with few resources, to a home tucked into a walkable neighborhood with more resources—a park and local coffee shops and plenty of restaurants and a huge library. We no longer had to brace ourselves for the intrusion of train horns at any time of the day or night. Instead, we heard church bells on the hour, every hour, during waking hours only. We pressed an easy button for our lives.
In our new community, I am invisible. I am invisible because I look the part. I fit in too well. I moved into myself, or a version of myself, that fits perfectly like a great dress that flatters the right parts and disguises the others. And that is a terrible feeling—to know I’m not who I thought I was. Did I play a role for more than a decade that didn’t fit? Was my costume a little too tight? Did I blunder the lines of the script? Because I’m so at rest here in a suburban condo beside two tennis courts and a community park, have I finally found my true self?
Or maybe I have finally returned to my true self. Our condo happens to be across the street from the apartment my husband and I lived in after we got married. And it is just a few blocks from the first house we bought—the house where we lived for five years, the house to which we brought home our newborn daughter. When we lived in Homewood during our family’s early years, I thought I would be a Homewood mom for the rest of my life. I thought we were settling down in a neighborhood that would always be ours. Maybe that’s why I grieved so much when we moved away and began our new lives in the city. We thought God was calling us to embrace the city and its people, to join our church at the time’s mission to be “a church for the city.” And maybe He was, even though that church’s mission eventually fizzled.
But amid our new calling and our desire to be a part of the revitalization of a place, I was letting go of a future I thought I would have, a future that seemed to fit me so well. It reminded me of when my now husband of 21 years broke up with me after we had dated for nine months. I was a wreck because I couldn’t imagine a future without him. We got back together three months later and got engaged three months after that. The future I had longed for was returned to me. And now another future I once wanted for has been returned to me.
Katherine Mansfield wrote, “How hard it is to escape from places. However carefully one goes they hold you — you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences — like rags and shreds of your very life.” I have gathered the rags and shreds of the life I used to have in Homewood and I hold them close. And I imagine rags and shreds are fluttering on the fences of our former homes in the city. Pieces of me are still there. But here I am, back in this place where our family was first established. Homewood is where I belong. For now.