RECENTLY in Williamsburg, I watched a film at the Visitors Center on the early life in the colony. At the height of the movie, the Virginian leaders initiate the call for independence. Each one must choose between America and England. An older statesman announces his decision to leave Virginia: "I am going home," he says to a friend. The younger statesman looks at him and replies, "I am home."
Tears welled up in my eyes. Thirty-four years earlier I had left the United States to move to Europe with my French husband. We were now on vacation at my mother's home in Williamsburg. In that small movie theater I asked myself, where was home? On one side of me sat my mother - representing my roots, my country, and my language. On the other side sat my husband - representing my adopted country and language. Which way was home?
I was lost. I had lived in many homes, in America and then in Europe - France, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland. I was rich with memories of homes, so why was I crying? I thought of Hestia, the mythological goddess of the hearth, the symbol of the home. Hestia had no other role than to keep the hearth fire burning. If ever the fire went out, the house was no longer a home.
Something of a modern-day Hestia, I needed my hearth fire. It had not been easy to leave my home and country. At first Pierre and I lived in his parents' home, and there was a hearth, but it was not mine. Then we moved to a furnished apartment in southern France.
There was a potbellied wood stove between the kitchen and the one other room. Pierre was often away, and I had a hard time keeping the wood burning evenly. When our first baby was born, in the middle of winter, my next-door neighbor tended the fire for me. Each morning she came and poked the pieces of wood around until they glowed warmly the rest of the day.
Pierre's next job took us to Belgium, where we found a large, unfurnished house in a suburb of Brussels, close to a quiet street corner. It was summertime, people were on vacation, and there was no traffic. But after the holidays, the cars and trucks came back. They seemed to drive right into the middle of our house. We tried to filter out the noise by closing the windows, lining the curtains, and closing the shutters. But that house never felt like home. In the spring we moved into a smaller place, on a
quiet, narrow street, and it became our home.
When we moved to Italy with three young children and settled into an apartment overlooking Lago Maggiore, I discovered the ritual of house-blessing. Early one Saturday morning, the parish priest, dressed in his black robe, arrived and asked if he could bless our new home. He walked from room to room, sprinkling holy water on everything in sight, the dining-room table, the beds, the dolls, the fire trucks. Each year for the four years we lived there, don Giuseppe came back to bless our home.
From Italy we went to Switzerland, to a fifth-floor apartment in a new high-rise building near the airport in Geneva. There were no house-blessings. We tried instead a housewarming, for the entire building, to warm the building. Everyone came but no one gave another party. We never called the apartment home, and when our sixth child arrived, we moved into a house near the Jura Mountains, on the other side of the border in France.
The house dated back to the 16th century, with an immense open fire and stone seats on either side of the blackened chimney. We lived there during most of our children's high school years. The fireplace was between the kitchen and the living room. We put our dining-room table in front of it, and from September to the end of the school year, we kept a wood fire burning there, in the center of our home.
With each move, I learned better how to care for a new house. When we moved back to Switzerland and bought our last house, we first polished the wooden floor of the living room and put in place our dining-room table, an antique oval table with enough leaves for family and friends. It had been with us since Belgium. I then collected a bouquet of wild flowers, some daisies and buttercups, and put them in a vase on the embroidered cloth on the table. We were home, and the dining-room table had become our he arth.
Now that our children have grown up, the table is smaller and the leaves are stored in the hall closet, but it is still the center of our home. It's where Pierre and I first sit down in the morning, where I read the newspaper and the mail, where I have a friend for lunch or eat alone, where Pierre comes home in the evening. And when all the leaves are once again in place, it's where we welcome back our children and our young grandchildren for Christmas, for a holiday, for an anniversary.
My tears in the movie theater reflected the momentary loss of this center. It takes time and care to tend the hearth fire. I know when I return to Switzerland, our house will at first feel cold and full of shadows. I will pull back the curtains, open the doors, dust off the shelves and books and photographs.
I will cut some flowers from the garden, a few pink roses or some of the last petunias, and arrange them on the table, making my offering to Hestia. Our house will soon feel like home again. Without this feeling of home around me, I still grow homesick.
Then I know it is time to look within. It is time to find the hearth-fire inside me and take care of it. And so I sit quietly and close my eyes, or I walk in the woods and look at the autumn leaves. I listen to music. I write at my desk. And when the bouquet of fresh flowers becomes a prayer of the heart, then I can say, wherever I am, that I am home.