The Essence of Home

In the PBS documentary The Old Man and the Storm, Herbert Gettridge fights every step of the way to single-handedly rebuild his home after Hurricane Katrina, despite financial difficulty, governmental abandonment and alienating discouragement. But his eventual triumph is bittersweet: his house stands empty and alone in his old neighborhood, devoid of family and community. The schools are still closed, the streets still packed with debris. His wife says the house doesn’t “smell” like home; Herbert misses seeing the neighborhood kids playing outside and receiving visits from family members.

Herbert’s trials and subsequent disappointment suggests that home is not brick and mortar, nor any location on a map: it is built from the surrounding details, those that suggest familiarity. These moments and details tend to be so routine one might never notice them until they are gone, but once they are gone they seem impossible to recreate. The loss of this familiarity plunges a person into complete chaos, as they have lost parts of their life that are their comfort and refuge from the trials in the outside world. Herbert rebuilt his house, and it shelters him physically, but he cannot replicate the many details to make it home. “Home”, more than being a location, is a feeling.

In William Shakespeare’s King Lear the eponymous King comes to the same conclusion. In Act V he is defeated and captured, ripped from his status and his home, but all he cares about is reuniting with his beloved daughter. He practically delights in them going to prison, he so longs to return to spending the rest of his days with her: “Come let’s away to prison: we two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage… So we’ll live, And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh at gilded butterflies…” (Act V Scene III lines 8-13) Lear recognizes that even though they will be held in prison until death, the homeliness is in the details of spending time with his daughter and sharing in those rituals, stories and memories that give them comfort. By these efforts he looks to turn prison into “home.”

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