"Home" is a word rich with meaning for many — perhaps most — of us seniors. It is rooted in a world that was typically small-town and rural before this country urbanized and its people became mobile in pursuit of careers or dreams of careers. The change since the middle of the 20th century is revolutionary in its impact, but "home" still has a hold on heads and hearts.
Home is a place although its location can change. Those who hold home in their heads and hearts can tell anyone where it is or was. However, home is created by people who live or lived in such places. It is about experiences that happen when we live with truly significant others. While not all such experiences are positive, home still means the place where we most love to be and the people whom we most want to embrace.
From childhood, I was a homebody. My first few months as a student at the University of Georgia were miserable. My friend, Billy, a veteran who had a car and let me tag along on weekend visits to Toombs County, once commented, "Branch, the closer we get to Lyons, the more you talk and even sing, but on the way back to Athens, you don't say anything." Just before my return to UGA for my sophomore year, Annette came into my life, expanding "home" to Cobbtown and intensifying my need to get there.
After we were married 16 months later, we spent 12 of the next 15 years living away from our home area in academic or professional pursuits, but home was still the place where our parents lived, both equally home. We rarely missed a holiday being with both families. She was a genius at packing everything for ourselves and two young children, including Christmas gifts. Her mother never went to bed until we arrived, no matter what the hour, and always had freshly-baked cake and coffee along with her embrace. Home!
Home is defined by aromas — food, burning wood in a fireplace, fresh-tilled fields in the summer. It is defined by conversations, even those that are little but chatter. Home is defined by welcome, by things that you don't do anywhere else, like hunts that are successful, whether you bag game or not. It is defined by unique habits and rituals peculiar to this place and its people, ways of doing things that are unimportant to others but almost sacred to these people.
That which is home can change. In time, home came to mean wherever Annette and I lived together, although our parents' homes never faded from our affections or our visits. After we settled in Statesboro in 1970, they were not far away, and close to one another. So we managed to do Christmas at our house and both of theirs in two days, sometimes a little hectic, but always precious.
While all of the above is personal, it is shared by many others, not all of them senior citizens. "Home" often carries with it strong feelings of identity, security and continuity. A young man who has moved frequently told me of the sense of belonging that he felt in the arms of his great-grandfather. That man has been dead for 19 years, but he was blessed with a spirit that could create home and for his great-grandson home endures.
The call of home, both place and people, is particularly powerful this time of year, the holiday season. The two busiest times for travel by roadway and airway are Thanksgiving and Christmas. Along with Christmas music, we are likely to hear "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays." Obviously, it is not just senior citizens who want to be among "those dear hearts and gentle people." In spite of all of the clamor to buy, wrap and give, the most precious gift is the embrace of home.
For all of the treasure it holds, home is a transient, sometimes fragile thing. Places change. Recently the trees were clear-cut on a large tract in front of the place where my parents lived. The vistas filled with longleaf pines and wiregrass where larks sang and quail whistled are blocked by stacks of broken trees waiting for the burning.
The swimming hole at Coleman's Bridge on the Ohoopee is gone, wiped out by river dynamics of a huge flood. There was I baptized, as were my parents, and did I baptize others. There did I court the girl who became my wife and there did we swim together for years. The house of her parents was sold after her father died. As places, so much of "home" is forever gone.
People are also transient, just passing through no matter how long their journey. It is their leaving that redefines home. Without parents, neither of the houses so sweet smelling and open-arm welcoming is home. Without Annette, this house is silent and somehow cold.
However, there are children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. How can they know home without someone to show them the way? So there you have it. I am now home, or at least part of it, for them.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.