Jack — not his real name — grew up in Lyons, my hometown. He was a star football player just after World War II, but upon graduation, he discovered that jobs were scarce in that farming country. So, he signed on with the Merchant Marines for food, clothing, shelter and pay and a hope of seeing faraway places with strange sounding names. It turned out that this life was not what he had envisioned and he went back to Lyons.
Walking from the bus station to his parents’ house, he decided to bolster his grown-up demeanor and hide his mushy real feelings by whistling a tune. His father met him at the door with, “Come in, son. We are glad you are home, too.”
At his puzzled look, his father said, “Well, Jack, we could hear you whistling ‘There’s No Place Like Home’ for two blocks.”
Yes, Dorothy’s happy exclamation to Auntie Em in “The Wizard of Oz” existed in song and verse long before that movie was made. Indeed, it played in the heads and hearts of millions separated from their homes by war and economic displacement.
What is home? It certainly is a place, a house and environs, but its essence is people who live there and often those who live nearby. Home includes a storehouse of memories of life events, and the assurance of security, love and enjoyment. Life in some places and families is harsh and loveless and there is no sense of home.
Home includes parents and siblings, of course. But where there are strong extended family ties, home includes grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and the places where they live because all of these are part of life from birth to death.
The farm that my parents bought in 1944 became our home. My time away from home before I went to the University of Georgia nearly nine years later was limited to a few ventures of a week or less. It was a great “growing-up” place with kinfolk all around and creeks and rivers for swimming, fishing and hunting. At Athens, my first few weeks were an agony of homesickness because only Branch hill was home.
After Annette and I married, my sense of home expanded to include the Slater house in Cobbtown and all who lived there. The term “in-law” never fit relationships between her family and me. She and I lived many places during college, seminary and early career stops, but we never were home except in the special places of our parents. It was sometimes close to being home because she was my contentment.
When I finished graduate school and joined the Georgia Southern faculty, we moved to Statesboro. There we made our home, a good place to make a life, raise children and create memories and close enough to our childhood homes for continued joy there and with those who congregated there.
Then death removed our parents, some siblings, all uncles and aunts, most cousins and, devastatingly, Annette. Without the people, places ceased to be home. This house, our last home, is marked by emptiness, but there are memories that hold me here, a sanctuary against total emptiness.
Apart from my personal state, it appears that home is a fading reality in society. Oh, the word is used in connection with place of residence, but that itself is often rather temporary. There are many reasons for this major social change. One is the decline of the family farm as anchor point for extended family cohesion. There is still farming, but it is so mechanized that huge amounts of land can be cultivated by a few people. Single-owner stores of all sorts have been swept away by corporate giants and the children of owners chose different careers, often in different places.
Employment typically requires geographic mobility. Advancement within most companies requires physical transfer, perhaps across country or overseas. The same is true with taking a “better” position with a new employer. The usual stay in the same job is two to three years. Every transfer means a new place to stay among strangers not family and the time spent there is too short to build many precious memories.
Modern family dynamics are radically different from the past. Some people pass up marriage, opting for living together arrangements, which tend to be fragile or no ties at all. Many of those who do marry do not stay married. A home is something that people create in a place. Its essence is stable people relationships.
Another change is in pattern of child care. Too often they are not raised at home. They go from child care centers, to pre-K to kindergarten to school. Their most consistent contacts are with other kids. They influence one another, the blind leading the blind.
Without significant, dependable family members, how can there be home?
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.