Editor’s Note: “Querencia,” from the Delmarva Review’s 14th annual edition, has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in nonfiction.
Author’s Note: When I first began writing memoir, I wrote a lot about growing up in Brooklyn. I began “Querencia” while wrestling with the question of whether my current living space still met my needs. Eventually I realized that what I really wanted to explore was the idea of “home.” What draws us to certain places? Where do we feel most like ourselves, or at home? A collage format provided the flexibility to mingle my Brooklyn memories with recollections of other places I’ve lived contrasted with the journey of the hermit crab in her perpetual search for the perfect home.
Margaret: You know, Klinger, I envy you.
Klinger: Me? What for?
Margaret …the way your face lights up when you talk
– MASH, Season 10, Episode 11
August 2019—I’m eating breakfast on my screened porch on one of those summer mornings that feels more like fall than summer. Sparrows flit from tree to rooftop and back. Across the way, Milo, my neighbor’s cat, patrols the rose bushes. My dog, Blue, snoozes on a lounge chair. On mornings like this, the house feels just right. On mornings like this, I don’t think about moving. On mornings like this, the house is not too big, too old, too far from the beach, too something. On mornings like this, I feel at home.
Where is home? Is it where you live? Where you want to live? Is it a place you used to live where you’re yearning to return? Or is it not a place at all? Is it how you feel about yourself when you’re there? An I’ll-know-it-when-I-feel-it feeling?
July 2019—I write a short story for an anthology with the theme “beach dreams.” My narrator, Nancy, like me, lives in a house that was her vacation/weekend retreat before it became her permanent home. As her grandchildren grow up, family members visit less often. She loves living in a beach community but says, “The house feels too big, as if I’m swimming around in one of my mother’s dresses.” Nancy drives around seeking her dream house in her dream neighborhood. She fantasizes about a small, slightly run-down bungalow on a side street in an older neighborhood. But there’s a bike on the porch and a truck in the driveway. Why is she falling in love with a house that’s not available?
Maybe I thought if I could move my fictional character into her dream house, I’d be able to find mine.
The hermit crab has many homes in its lifetime. The hermit is not a true crab—it has a smaller, softer underbelly. It must defend itself from predators and dehydration by making a “home” out of a stray snail shell it finds on the beach. As the hermit grows, it must continually seek out larger shells.
Pros and cons—My house is both too big and too small—too many bedrooms and bathrooms but not enough living space. My dining room is only seven feet wide. Imagine five or six people around the table. Someone will have to get up to let someone else use the bathroom.
The house’s location, three miles from the beach and walking distance to supermarkets, was once a plus. But thanks to a building and buying boom in the last few years, newer communities now surround our older one. The left turn onto the secondary road toward town or nearby stores is an iffy proposition.
I cherish the memories made in this house: grandchildren racing up and down the stairs, gathering towels, sunscreen, beach toys; cartoon music blaring from the upstairs den (adults pleading, “turn it down”); the aroma of bacon and French toast summoning guests downstairs; the crackle of potato chip bags as teenagers enjoy a post-midnight snack; my daughter, Michele, and I preparing Thanksgiving dinner—the same recipes each year.
Things change. My grandchildren became adults; their visits tapered off. That was expected. Michele died six years ago. That was not supposed to happen.
August 2020. Notes from the pandemic—I’ve been “sheltering in place” since March 15. Six months and no end in sight. I have not seen my family since Christmas. My son is a voice on the phone. I have not been to the movies or eaten a meal in a restaurant or hugged another person.
Every ten days or so, I shop at the supermarket. Twice a week, I visit friends in their backyards, or they visit me, and we “socially distance” on my porch.
My home—a two-story four-bedroom townhouse—is now my cage. And a cage is a prison even if it has four bathrooms, a screened porch, and a well-stocked refrigerator.
Warm evening in July. Vacationers stroll the boardwalk in the small beach town where I live. While these temporary residents consider T-shirts, hats, shell necklaces, I peer into the window of a typical souvenir shop at our town’s other transient tenants—the hermit crabs. Most appear to be dozing harmlessly. But each would kill for the right home. Shopkeepers are careful to scatter extra shells around the inside of the habitat to prevent fights that can lead to loss of limbs or even death.
In the wild, hermit crabs rely on scarce empty shells that wash up on shore. Not any old shell. A Goldilocks shell: the perfect size and shape. Sometimes the hermit will carry around a spare “tryout” home until she’s sure nothing better is available.
October 1951—I’m not in Brooklyn anymore. My friend Jerry and I stand outside the New Jersey garden apartment where he lives now. The suburbs. The place seems as foreign to me as some faraway country that exists only on a map in my fifth-grade classroom. We stand in a grassy area surrounded by brick buildings with balconies.
Where is everything? Where is the corner where your mother sends you for bagels or a quart of milk? Where’s the candy store where you buy comic books, loose-leaf paper for school, and ice cream cones? Where’s the movie theater, the savings bank, the cafeteria? Where’s the West End, the subway line that took us everywhere else we needed to go—downtown shopping or in the opposite direction to Coney Island. Most importantly, where is the water—the park by Gravesend Bay, where on clear days you could see the Statue of Liberty in one direction and Coney Island’s Parachute Jump in the other?
We walk to the playground, but in the two months since Jerry and his family moved from the apartment above us, we’ve become strangers. We don’t dare each other to swing from the top of the monkey bars or pretend we’re cowboys on the seesaw. “Let’s go in,” Jerry says. “My mom has cake.”
March 2018—Bulldozers level most of the trees in the wooded area that borders our small community. A skimpy strip of leafless trees remains to separate our homes from a wasteland of tree trunks and stumps, soon to become streets, sidewalks and new homes. Neighbors, who put out food for the foxes and squirrels and other animals that sheltered in that small forest, worry about the destruction of their habitat. Is this another reason for me to move? I’d always dreamed of living near the beach. How can I fault others for wanting to live here, too?
April 2018—Through the thin border of trees, I now enjoy the sunset each evening—an unexpected (and literal) bright side to the destruction of our forest. Random pink streaks in the sky deepen gradually to a rich, rosy glow. Soon, the lower portion of the sky gleams gold and russet and orange. The sparse trees seem etched against the sky, each branch sharp and distinct, as in an Ansel Adams photograph.
It seems to me that until now, I went where the waves took me, never really choosing a place as much as washing up there—in Long Branch, the New Jersey beach town where my son was born, then south to the DC suburbs as each career advance for my husband required a transfer. The suburbs and the rest of my life loomed, pre-packaged like a TV dinner or an egg salad sandwich from the Automat.
April 2020—Everything is shut down except for grocery stores and other “essential” businesses. I can fill my car with gas but I have no place to go. Every day feels the same. Every day feels different in its sameness. The good news: neighbors have become more neighborly. One brings sugar cookies with a Happy to know you post-it attached. Another delivers three daffodils to my door. Each day my dog Blue and I circle the community. He pauses and howls outside the doors of his favorite neighbors—those who keep treats in their garage for him and the other neighborhood pets. At the sound of a garage door opening, Blue’s ears perk up and he pulls at his leash. “It’s OK,” Jim calls with a wave—my signal to let Blue run off to claim his reward.
June 1968—To live in a house—a real house—once seemed like an incredible luxury to me. When I was younger, I’d imagined that the large Victorian homes on our Brooklyn street were full of intriguing rooms and stairways, places to hide away to read a book or to daydream.
We buy a house in the Maryland suburbs because that’s what families with young children did in those days. I’m 27 years old and this is my first single family home—a small brick rambler on a corner lot. In this house my children climb the willow tree in the side yard, play touch football in the street, bike around the neighborhood with their friends. In this house I learn the difference between flower and weed, annual and perennial, maple tree and oak. I see my first red-winged blackbird, collect rocks from the side of the road to build a rock garden, throw a surprise 40th birthday party for my husband. We swim in the community pool but feel guilty about its “whites only” policy. I finish graduate school, quit teaching, take a job in the city. My husband quits his job to attend graduate school.
Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio or Rome — there’s no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment. Theologians, sky pilots, astronauts have even felt the appeal of home calling to them from up above, in the cold black outback of interstellar space.
– Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness,
Whenever I travel, I imagine myself living in that place—a condo in Kauai, a tiny apartment in Los Angeles walking distance to Canter’s Delicatessen, a flat over a trattoria in Positano—a list that reveals my priorities as clearly as if I’d taken a magazine quiz called “Find Your Perfect Home”—close to an ocean; interesting places to eat. By those standards I’m doing OK.
The Canadian village of Three Pines exists only in the novels of Louise Penny. Almost everyone who reads this author’s mystery series about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache wants to live here. As befitting novels where murders and other crimes occur, Three Pines is a mysterious place. The village cannot be found on any map. Cell phone service and Wi-Fi are unpredictable. People arrive by accident, lost on their way to somewhere else. The place reminds them of something they once had but lost or never had but craved. They become permanent residents.
In many respects, it’s a normal enough town. It has a bakery, a bookstore, a bistro, a B&B. Children play on the village green. There’s an annual art show.
I read these books, not to find out who committed the crime at the heart of the story, but to observe and to feel part of this community. To experience a potluck dinner at the Gamache’s attended by Myrna, a social worker turned bookstore owner, Clara, an artist who paints remarkable portraits, Ruth, an elderly poet who may be mad, is usually drunk and who will not be separated from her pet duck. I sense their ease with each other as they meet at the bistro, drop into and out of each other’s homes for drinks, dinner. Someone always has a pot of soup on the stove. Someone else pops down to the bakery for a baguette. A green salad appears.
I can see myself living here, part of this different kind of family.
A house is a Goldilocks house until it isn’t. Until you have more kids or an in-law moves in. Until one or more of your children grows up and leaves home or reverses the journey and returns. Until you look at the dining room chandelier and realize you never liked it. Actually, you hate it. Until your husband starts staying out late, returning home with flimsy excuses. Until the trees in the wooded backyard that once delighted you appear to be moving closer to the house. Until it becomes a place to leave.
What was it about that place—Bensonhurst, Brooklyn? Why do I keep going back there in my dreams as if I’ve lost something I need to recover to get on with my life? It could not have been the apartment where the four of us slept in the one bedroom. It was not the view of other windows overlooking an alley. It was not our fractured family life—my mother sending me out to play so she could take a nap to get through the day.
Still, it was a place where a five or six-year-old could ask a stranger to see her safely across the street. Where you could leave a sleeping infant outside the grocery store and return to find a grandmotherly woman rocking the carriage or adjusting a blanket. And it seemed to me that the thirty-two families in our apartment house formed a kind of village. People could, and did, go visiting in pajamas or housecoats—to borrow an egg or have a cup of coffee. Moms watched each other’s kids. I was often sent to Mrs. G., the Super’s wife, who let me play with Susie, her cocker spaniel. Noticing my grimy knees one day, Mrs. G. pulled out a jar of cold cream and rubbed away several layers of dirt.
Have I romanticized these memories? Are they a photo album version of reality where everyone is always smiling and wearing their best clothes? But who doesn’t love to idealize home? Isn’t there truth at the heart of most popular clichés—no place like home; home is where the heart is; home sweet home? And what about Home is the place that when you have to go there, they have to take you in? Don’t we all long to believe that the place Robert Frost describes exists?
Maybe there’s something about a previous home that imprints itself on you like a first kiss. Perhaps we judge each stopover by the number of ways it reminds us of “home.”
May 1979—Our second house, larger than the first, sits on a hill on a wooded lot in Northern Virginia. This is the house everyone will leave.
We move in on Mother’s Day when the trees outside our bedroom window are that shade of new green you see only in spring. In this house the trees alert us to the changing seasons. In this house our daughter graduates from high school and starts college. Our son and his friends form a rock band that practices in our basement. My husband receives his PhD. I work by day and start law school at night. I throw my husband a surprise party for his 50th birthday. He throws a party to celebrate my graduation from law school. My daughter marries her high school sweetheart. My son decides to try life in California.
In this house in the summer of 1989 my husband and I separate, and I am living alone for the first time in my life.
How long does that Goldilocks feeling last? For the young hermit crab the new shell fits until she grows a bit, and the search for a new home begins. You could say the crab’s life is an unending search for the right home.
January 2002—I am sixty years old and finally choosing a place to live by myself. I look for this place the way I might have once sought a mate. I want to fall in love.
I find a condo in an Olney, Maryland community overenthusiastically named “Waterview.” The apartment backs up to a small lake (okay, a pond) on which geese swim and from which a bull frog sings (okay, croaks) all night. My grandchildren can ride their bikes the two miles to my home from theirs.
The place is half the size of the multi-level home I’m leaving. Downsizing consumes two months of planning, trips to drop off stuff at thrift shops and trips to the dump for the rest. But I love looking through the patio door to the shimmering water beyond. The landscape feels lighter and so do I.
Olney functions like a small town. Minivans fill parking lots outside strip malls. Visiting the supermarket, bank, or library, I almost always meet someone who knows me only as “Rachel’s Grandma.” This both pleases and disturbs me. In this town, where the primary business is running a nuclear family, I feel invisible.
Leaving Olney means leaving two grandchildren, a daughter I’d grown closer to as we both grew up. A new life in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware is calling to me—new friends, a community of writers, seeing the ocean every day. The debate I have with myself about where to live becomes an essay entitled No Place like Here. It wins second prize in a writing contest. Still, I don’t decide. Until I do.
This, then, is home. What is home? Is it a sort of lap of location, that exists only if certain conditions are in place? Is it the intersection of rigidity and comfort—a junction of familiarity that you curl into? Is it a feeling? I don’t know, but I’m being hugged hard against it, and I can’t tell when I’ll be let go.
– Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood
July 2020—Four mornings a week I visit our community pool. Seven or eight regulars lounge on floats in the water or on chairs spaced six feet apart. Each person hails me by name with a “hello,” “how are you?” or “where were you yesterday?” Once I might have found these multiple greetings intrusive, when what I really wanted was to swim, exercise a bit and then recline in a chair and read. Now, I’m happy to tread water in the deep end while making small talk with others about what we’ve ordered from Amazon, best places to get takeout and what to watch on Netflix.
May 2009—This time, I fall in love with the place, not the house. A place where I can be Sarah, not Grandma or Mom. A place where I can see the ocean every day, mark its moods, allow it to temper my own. A place where I can be myself.
After three years of using the Rehoboth Beach house for weekends, holidays and summer breaks with family and friends, I make it my permanent home. It might sound absurd but some things about Rehoboth Beach remind me of Brooklyn. Maybe it’s the proximity to the ocean, or the large homes with generous porches on some of the town’s shady streets. Maybe “free writing” with a small group of writers once or twice a week— sharing stories about growing up, our families and yes, our quirks and neuroses—fosters the formation of easy friendships.
It takes a while for me to feel “at home” here. A few months until I can greet most neighbors by name, a year or so to experience the happy surprise of almost always meeting someone I know in the supermarket, the library, or on the boardwalk. It takes having people in my home for book club and inviting friends to visit for the film and jazz festivals. It takes reading my work in public, thinking, Is this me? Spilling family secrets? Mocking my foibles? It takes other writers telling me my work is funny, that it reminds them of something in their childhood, that my mother sounds like their mother.
People think of home as a single fixed place, but when I went traveling, I found the community of extended family I’d never had. Later, I learned there’s a Spanish word for this: “querencia.” It refers to that place in the ring where a bull feels strongest, safest, where it returns again and again to renew its strength. It’s the place we’re most comfortable, where we know who we are—where we feel our most authentic selves.”
– Everything Here is Beautiful, Mira T. Lee
Summer 2020—Inertia sets in. I weigh the hassle of downsizing and moving vs. the possible gains. A smaller space, an easier drive. But what about the stuff? In the garage—eight beach chairs, two boogie boards, a scooter. Upstairs in one of the bedrooms—a deflated football and basketball in a box with a couple of Frisbees. Games in the closet—Scrabble, Boggle, Who- nu? Apples to Apples. In another closet—several cartons filled with family photo albums and piles of loose pictures. In the upstairs master bedroom, I find a memo pad in Michele’s desk: a to-do list, three pages of Hangman games, and a note in childish printing: Dear Mom, I’m reelly (sic) sorry about what happened. Love you. Good night.
October 2020—One happy result of the pandemic, is that I’ve made peace, at least temporarily, with my house. My dining room is the perfect size for dinner for one. The table doubles as my writing desk. Even the rarely used upper level has become a retreat of sorts. Upstairs I revisit the family photos that line the hallway; I stand by a window to watch for the mailman or enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the neighborhood. The den has a comfortable couch for reading and napping in the afternoon. Blue dozes on the floor next to me. I was happy for the extra space when, a few months ago, my granddaughter Rachel phoned to ask if she and a friend could stay with me. It was late, they’d been in Ocean City and were too tired to drive home.
The summer crowds are gone. I can walk Blue on the boardwalk. His unusual appearance—black coat, intelligent blue eyes—draws comments from passersby. Someone always stops to ask what kind of dog he is or if they can pet him. I explain he’s a mutt from the shelter who loves attention. Shelter, I think, another word for home.
After a while we head down to the beach and walk along the shoreline for a mile or so. I keep my eyes on the ocean, watching it form and reform itself continuously into something new.
Sarah Barnett has had careers as a teacher, librarian, and lawyer before retiring to Delaware. She is Vice President of the Rehoboth Beach Writers Guild and enjoys leading Free Writes, teaching writing classes, and composing essays and short fiction while walking her dog on the beach. Her work has appeared in Hippocampus, Brevity Blog, Delmarva Review, Delaware Beach Life, and other publications.
Delmarva Review publishes evocative new prose and poetry selected from thousands of submissions annually. Designed to encourage outstanding writing, the literary journal is nonprofit and independent. Financial support comes from tax-deductible contributions, sales, and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Website: DelmarvaReview.org.