Home Is Where The History Is

IT is noon on a soggy spring Sunday. The windshield wipers on my rental car are working overtime as I weave a circuitous route through this sprawling Army post, looking for the street where my husband and I once lived. Twenty-one years ago, these roads were familiar. Now old landmarks have disappeared, and the cookie-cutter sameness of military housing only makes my rainy-day search more difficult. Finally, there it is - 222 Metz Road - a two-bedroom stucco duplex that looks remarkably unchanged since we spent 18 months here in the late 1960s. Someone has added an attractive cedar fence to enclose the patio. The pine tree in front that was small and scraggly in 1970 is taller, but still scraggly.

This was our third address in as many years, a testament to the frequency of Vietnam-era moves. It was also our last military assignment - a time spent eagerly awaiting the birth of our daughter and planning our return to the East Coast. On a clear day, we could see a sliver of the Pacific from our living room window. On a clear night, the lights of Monterey Bay twinkled in the distance.

I am here for the hastiest of visits - a half-hour detour between appointments on a business trip. But as I hesitate in front of this way station in my life, I wonder: How many families have lived here since we left? How many moving vans have loaded and unloaded sofas, beds, dishes, and toys - all the familiar possessions that can turn this unassuming boxcar-shaped house into a comfortable home?

Revisiting a former residence, like paging through a family photo album, produces a flood of memories. But unlike snapshots of weddings, babies, graduations, and family vacations, in which people play the starring roles, houses and apartments round out family portraits by giving the flavor of a street, a neighborhood, a community. More than a simple exercise in nostalgia, these visits form an architectural, rather than a genealogical, family tree.

Tracing residential roots brings other small pleasures as well. For adults, the activity can be a way of tracking the progression of a marriage and the growth of a family. For children, it offers a chance to imagine parents in another setting. Ten years ago, during a vacation trip, we gave our daughter a tour of this same neighborhood. ``You lived here?'' she asked, incredulous, amazed not only at the obvious regimentation of military life but at the contrast between this contemporary struct ure and the white New England Colonial that has always been her home.

I grew up in the same Midwestern city where my parents were married and knew by heart the exact locations of their earlier addresses: The large house across the river where my father rented a room when he began his first job as an electrical engineer. The two-story stucco house on a corner lot where my mother lived with her parents after graduating from college. The second-floor apartment where my parents lived as newlyweds. Each place became a small thread woven into the tapestry of our family history - relatively insignificant on its own, but part of a larger, evolving design.

Over the years there have been other sentimental journeys, tracking even further back in time. I have visited the Wisconsin homestead where my maternal great-grandparents raised their family. I have also driven past the farm where my father lived as a boy, and the two-story house in Florida, built by my grandfather, where my mother lived as a teenager. Each address added insight into the lives of hard-working grandparents.

If my address book is typical, with its dozens of crossed-out entries attesting to the mobility of peripatetic friends, the family homestead has become only a memory for many Americans. The late-20th-century patterns of change have turned home into a fast-turnover item. Picking up on this mobility, Mary Gordon titled a collection of short stories ``Temporary Shelter.''

Temporary shelter reached an extreme during the Persian Gulf war, when a soldier on TV gave his parents a videotape tour of his tent. But in a way, duration has nothing to do with it. No matter how briefly we live there, if the place collects our being, gives us residence, locates us in the world, it deserves a cross-stitch on the wall: Home Sweet Home.

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