Irish writer Colm Tobin wrote that “Home is home.” Alternately expressed as “Home is where the heart is,” there is something of ‘the leaving experience’ that only an emigrant or an expat can understand.
This past Thanksgiving my husband and I drove from our home in Eau Claire to my hometown of Iowa City. This was my second Thanksgiving since my mom has died, our first in my hometown since losing my mom. As a minister I have been privileged to serve congregations in Montana, Alaska, Minnesota, Iowa and now Wisconsin. While moving around was not what my husband envisioned for his life, he has told me recently that he believes his calling is to be a supportive pastor’s spouse. It doesn’t get better than that for me.
I am the daughter of an Irish man whose family emigrated to America. While I do not know much of the circumstances that led his family to leave their homes to come to a new land, I know enough of Irish history to know that it was not for ‘the good’ that they came. They left their homeland for the same reason that the majority of emigrants to America come to this shore — in search of a better life, far away from the persecution at home — be that political, religious, economic or all of the above.
I grew up far away from that father whose life was consumed by the Irish Catholic church and the forces that bade his family to cleave to their faith, no matter how unrecognizable it became in him at the end. I was raised in Iowa by my mother who had grown up a nomad, the daughter of a career soldier who had seen battle in two foreign wars by the time she was born and was about to leave his family again for the next.
I was born in Iowa because that is where my grandfather had retired to, and it was close to his family’s roots in southern Minnesota. But of course his family had emigrated there too, and they were marked by the experience of coming across the prairie in a covered wagon, not knowing what the new land would bring.
It is only my mother’s mother who is truly of this land. Born the daughter of a Cherokee woman, it is through her that I trace my membership to the Cherokee Nation.
My great-grandmother Lillia took in washing and could trace her ancestors to the the Eastern Band of Cherokee — that is the ones who stayed behind and fought like hell for their home — and through her daughter, I received my birthright into the Cherokee Nation and the Dawes Rolls.
“Emigration” has a textbook definition as do “immigrants” and “refugees” too. But all three of these words have much greater meaning than script on a page for the people who are experiencing them.
I have never been forced to leave my land, nor have I been forced to hold out my hand in hope that someone will bring me safely in. But I have felt homesickness, and I have experienced the shock and death of a loved one many miles away. After loss like death the breach between “home” and “where you are” becomes even greater.
Yes, while home is made up of the land and the hills and the soil of a place, much, much more of home is made of the people whom you love and who love you back. And after death, it seems like there is a little less love in the world.
So maybe this is what it means to know that you can never truly go home again. Yes, “Home is home,” but it is also “where the heart is.”
The Rev. Sara Q. Brown is associate pastor at Saving Grace Lutheran Church, Eau Claire.