“Well, it’s kind of like a museum, being home and seeing all the pieces of what your days used to be,” my dad pointed out to me as we sat on the living room couch.
In many ways, he was right. All the Halloween decorations from elementary school my mom still loves so dearly were taped to the walls, the laundry (waiting to be folded) could be found in the same spot in front of the TV, and tufts of dog hair characteristically spotted the furniture. But there were differences, too: The slender stalks in my dad’s water garden now stroked the sky, and new books had been squeezed into the diminishing crevices of the bookcase. At the beginning of the semester, I didn’t foresee myself returning home until Thanksgiving break. I assumed I would just tough my first semester of college out and wait to have a home-cooked meal and a long, luxurious shower. I decided to go home because, well, I hadn’t yet, and my peers made it seem like an activity I should partake in. So, on a Friday afternoon, I found myself eagerly awaiting the key to unlock the door to my house, the museum of the first 18 years of my life.
Anyone who has ever left home knows that there is no place quite like it. There’s no place where the little things the larger world can’t provide all align. Part of the appeal of going home for new college students is that it solidifies the separation between the life you’re cultivating now and the life you once lived at your home. The new, unforeseen challenges of college bring about this distinction between the two worlds — a distinction that inadvertently morphs home into a place of simplicity, an oasis where nothing could ever go awry. In the midst of navigating an unfamiliar educational environment, home becomes a museum: All the things we know and love are on display, ready for us to sentimentally reflect on how easy and simple life was before we left for college.
I fell into this trap as I sat on the Amtrak, making my way back home. I expected myself to become overly attached to home and all of its comforts over the weekend. In reality, though, I was ready to return to Berkeley after one full day away.
I woke up Saturday morning ready to spend my only complete day at home with the pleasurable things of life: breakfast, a Target run, a walk with my dog. I began my day mulling over the newspaper at my spot at the kitchen table, enjoying the tunes of Django Reinhardt floating through the kitchen. The concept of studying had evaporated. My parents quibbled in the background about the day’s schedule, a normal occurrence I found comforting.
My morning lazily continued until I had exhausted every alternative to studying. As I opened a textbook, however, my brother James, who is autistic, began to swing in his hammock, singing in a loud, disruptive manner. His booming voice cascaded down the stairs and echoed in the hallway; his singing made the noisiness of residence hall life seem like a mere hushed whisper. Looking at the tiny print of my textbook, I realized that I was no longer able to study in this disruptive environment. I struggled through it during high school, but in the past few months, I had grown accustomed to the silence of libraries. I knew if for just a second I looked up from my textbook, James would know he had successfully distracted me. I hunkered down forcefully into my chair, determined to wait this out.
My mom was not as lucky as I had been. I heard James run upstairs and envelop her in what looked like a hug but, I knew from experience, was not so gentle. James squeezed her neck and gripped her tightly. “James, please stop. I’m busy right now,” she said calmly. His fingers pressed harder into her face. “James, personal space, please,” she said with more force as she pried his fingers away. I heard her come down the stairs, away from James and the hammock. The house was silent. I returned to my reading.
Suddenly, a wail interrupted the fleeting fragile peace. “Mama!” James cried as he tackled her and grabbed her by the neck. “James, let go. Let go, let go, let go,” she yelped, gasping for breath. Instinctively, I leapt out of my chair and pulled James away by his shirt. He screeched and turned toward me, tears of bewilderment in his eyes. We clutched each other’s hands. He contorted his jaw, opening and closing it like he always does during one of his fits. I, in what was not my finest moment, dug my fingernails into his skin and pushed him away, hoping he would just stop, that he would run out of frustration and just simply cry. Instead, he ran out the front door into the street, his cries penetrating the sleepy afternoon air. My parents ran after him; I waited at the door. He didn’t get far. My dad brought him back into the house, and my mom, hands clutching her temples with her eyes cast downward, admitted, “I think we need to change his meds”.
Now it was my turn for tears. I had been with James when he was like this in worse places to be than my house. But the fact that I had forgotten what living with James was like and that, in the end, most of his behavior came down to a dose of liquid he consumes daily stung.
I returned once more to my textbook and tried to dull my emotions with dry language. The rest of the afternoon followed the tone James’ episode had set. My other brother, Grayson, was in a car accident. He was fine, but I wasn’t sure how to react. Of course I was worried for Grayson, but I was also distraught by this hectic state of my home. The stable, rejuvenating place I had expected to visit seemed to be deteriorating right before my eyes.
My family convened at the dinner table later that evening. This was the first family dinner to take place since I had left for college. My dad had made cioppino specifically for me and my fish-loving taste buds. We tried to talk about other things besides the day’s events, a task more difficult than expected. My mom, not as keen on fish as I am, grimaced at the soup. My dad pushed my mom to try some, claiming truthfully that the flavor was not too fishy. She gave him the stink eye. “I don’t want to eat it. You already know that,” she spat. Silence resumed its place at the dinner table.
I didn’t physically leave my house until noon Sunday, but my mind had already left for Berkeley before my dad and I got into the car to make the drive back. I had already made a mental list of all the things I wanted to do the moment I was back in my habitat. There was clothing to wash, reading to finish and hot chocolate from Caffe Strada to drink. The little world at UC Berkeley I had begun to create had become much more appealing after the weekend I had just spent at home.
While my home and my life at UC Berkeley both have their challenges, going home made me realize how separate these two worlds are. I pictured home as something frozen in time. I didn’t want it to change, even though it certainly does. At college, I don’t have a history to confront as vividly as I do at home. The door to my residence hall room does not lead to a museum. At UC Berkeley, I learn something new every day. The unfamiliarity of the people, my professors and the vast amount of knowledge I am collecting is destabilizing but also incredibly inspiring. I have no idea what I will be doing in the immediate future, let alone the next couple of years, but I am learning to embrace this environment, to be grateful for the many paths that lie before me and to cultivate my own museum. The door to my residence hall room leads to a place that I am still creating, that constantly feels like it’s in a state of flux. I don’t mind, though. That’s where I want to be.