In Search of the Meaning of Home

Guest story by Juan Ruiz

This story only appears in English. / Esta pieza solo aparece en Inglés. 


The beginning of my search for the meaning of the home takes me on a mental journey to my first home - our first apartment on 180th Street between Audubon and Amsterdam avenue.

I stand at the front door - a red, metal door with a gold peephole and bell, adorned with the dents we kids had left behind. This is my first home, where I was raised by my mother, alongside my brother, and so often in the company of my maternal uncle and the rest of my big, colorful, warm, loving extended family.

The door swings open and I walk down the long corridor. As a child, this passage was a vast stretch of land where my cousins and I explored our imaginations. We played from end to end and floor to ceiling, wedging between the narrowly-spaced walls with our sweaty hands and bare feet, avoiding either the endless abyss below or the molten lava, depending.

At the end of the corridor, I meet the area at which the bathroom, kitchen and living room connect - a space reserved for shoes and random clutter, where we had kept my cockatoo Coqui before my allergies came between us.Our small bathroom is where most of my toys lived, in a green plastic bin, at arms reach of our footed bathtub, a porcelain world in which G.I. Joes and dinosaurs were summoned to life by a pruney boy of six years old.

The kitchen is where my mother seemed to spend most of her time, between cooking for her boys, listening to music, entertaining her sisters, and talking on the phone. It's where I would come to negotiating with her. I would make a request in the form of a demand. My mother would sternly reject before finally capitulating after I hung around long enough, moping, sitting quietly and somberly on the floor with my head on a chair rocking slowly side to side. I would then race out the door hiding my satisfied smile until I was out of her sight.

The living room, on the blue floral couches, is where I spent most of my time. It's where I watched TV and ate snacks. It's where my cousin would often join me and would do so with more frequency once we learned that disconnecting the cable box reset the parental controls on channels 70 and 71. Most of the time we lived in apartment 4, my mother, my brother and I shared a room. The other bedroom was rented out to a woman named Nancy until my brother and I recaptured the room.

Our small room contained my mother's full-sized bed, where I slept. My brother slept on the bottom bunk of our bunk bed, on my mother's side. The top bunk was nominally mine, but in practice, it was where we kept extra bedding, where guests put their coats, and where kids took to hiding without fail during each round of hide and seek. At night we prayed. My mother recited Our Father, my brother took a smaller prayer, and eventually, my mother taught me to lead my own.

Home was the space my mom created for herself and her boys.

This was our first home before we moved to 190th street. By then, though, my cousins who lived upstairs from us had moved out of the building. My mother wanted a better space for herself and her boys.

My home then was a safe space for me. The world ‘out there’ was chaos: streets I couldn’t yet cross, games I wasn’t yet big enough to play, big kids on the corner. My home was a world known to me. It was a place of comfort, love and imaginative exploration. My home was where my whole family came together to eat and listen to music. It’s where the cousins convened to pick teams for games of steal the bacon in the hallway.

Home has also been a space of much pain. It has been a space in which certain things have been quietly deemed unspeakable, lest they stir up an emotional storm. Home is where I have said things that I can never unsay. Home is where I have sat witness to the desiccation of the body and soul of a man, once lively and lovable and now withered, delusional and embittered. Home is where a mother lay in darkness and solitude wailing with no one but her boy to hear.

Home is where the State had trespassed to capture a mother’s son and remove him from society. Home is where conversations about culture--about what it means to be Dominican, American, or Dominican-American--had so often devolved into toxic bickering and accusations of elitism or backwardness. Home is where I have seen on first account how a person’s mind can slip away and how pain unacknowledged is the mother of delusion.

Yet home is where I have learned to love and persevere. It’s where I am learning what it means to love unconditionally. It’s where I am learning that to stay quiet in matters of moral import is to be complicit. Home is where I am learning how to forgive.

Home is that place whose perfection you root for so much you often forget it’s imperfect.

Each time I try to grasp the meaning of home it slips through my fingers. My autobiographical attempts to understand the meaning of home seem to fall apart for me, because home is more complicated than the black and white versions that come to mind, depending on how I’m feeling.

Holidays help me understand the meaning of home in ways that sitting and thinking never could. Understanding comes in a wave of feeling. It shows up when I grab my mother for a dance on Christmas Eve or catch her eyes when the New Year ball drops. The contradictions in my thoughts and feelings erupt into an overwhelming feeling of joy, sadness, nostalgia--but most of all, gratitude.

Juan Ruiz is a writer from Washington Heights. He is interested in psychology, philosophy, and people.