I believe that one can never leave home. I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and the dragons of home under one’s skin, at the extreme corners of one’s eyes and possibly in the gristle of the earlobe.
Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter
From the moment my parents carried me home from the small country hospital where I was born until the day that I left that home 17 years later, my address was reliably static: 13 Buckland Street, Northam, Western Australia, 6401. (My Dad still lives in that house, as I’ve described, although the address, bizarrely, has changed.) My parents built 13 Buckland Street and mine is the only family ever to have lived there. So if the walls of the house could talk they would tell stories only of us.
My memories of the day that I moved out, in spite of all the many intervening years, are distinct. As I was packing up the last of my stuff, ready to get in the car and leave the only home I’d ever known, Terry Jacks’ song Seasons in the Sun came on the radio. Yes, yes, I know that the song is a travesty of Jacques Brel’s original Le Moribund and that it’s been described as one of the worst pop songs ever recorded. But on that day my interest in it was piqued only by the fact that some of the lyrics seemed heartbreakingly appropriate. “Goodbye, Papa, please pray for me, I was the black sheep of the family…” “You tried to teach me right from wrong, too much wine and too much song…” “Goodbye Michelle, my little one, you gave me love and helped me find the sun…” The song is about death and although the only death that day was that of my childhood, it still managed to imprint itself on my brain as a farewell to loves and places lost.
I think that goodbye was even more poignant than it might have been because of the fact that I wasn’t allowed to leave any trace of myself in the house. M is 50 next year and still has a few possessions stashed at his mother’s place. But as I was the tenth of the twelve children that Dad and his second wife had spawned between them (six belonging to his first family and six to hers), the two of them had had just about enough of children and their paraphernalia by the time I moved out, so I was promised that anything I left behind would immediately be thrown on a skip. My departure, therefore, was fairly definitive.
(The house as seen now on Google Earth)
I’ve moved into and out of many places since then, the last one always, of course, feeling like the most significant. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been moving our stuff out of the Chateau de Collonges, that gorgeously enormous, beautifully decorated, sublimely situated mansion, and into a standard two-bedroom flat on the first floor of a modern apartment building. True to the pattern that was established when I was 17, I’ve left no trace of myself in the chateau. I’ve taken down our paintings and rehung those chosen by the owners. I’ve unstrung the fairy lights that I had trailing up the stairs. I’ve rolled up M’s Persian carpets and run a vacuum cleaner over the empty spaces they left beneath them.
But the older I get and the more houses I live in, the more I believe that it’s impossible to remove all traces of oneself from a place. I can’t imagine another family inhabiting 13 Buckland Street but it’s inevitable that one day they will. And I’m sure that when that family moves in, they’ll be subconsciously aware of the fact that the walls still somehow contain some of the love felt by the young couple who built the place. The fittings will still reverberate with the laughter and tears of the six children who were brought up there. The air will still be resonant with the stoic optimism of a man who shared his daily life with two remarkable women within those walls, and loved and lost them both.
For as long as M and I were living in the dependence of the Chateau de Collonges, every day felt like an event. It didn’t feel as though we had to do anything in particular while we were there; just being under that remarkable cathedral ceiling, or looking out of the window at the chateau next door, or sitting by the enormous fireplace, felt special. I’m not sure if that feeling was created by the remarkable architecture of the place or by the resonance of the lives that were lived there before ours, but every moment there seemed to be imbued with significance. The house itself was a paradise of sorts.
I don’t have that feeling here in our new little modern apartment. But there is good news in that. While the chateau was a story in itself, our new home is no more or less than a safe and warm place from which to create stories of our own. We’ve only been here for ten days or so, but as each day passes it becomes more evident to me that while I don’t like to change the places that I live in, I very much like those places to change me. In the first week that we lived here, I attended my first photography club meeting, went to my first French class, swapped books with my friends at the end-of-year wrap-up meeting of the Geneva International Book Club, joined lovely friends to see the cinema release of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as directed by Danny Boyle at the National Theatre in 2011, had lunch on the shores of Lake Geneva with another lovely friend and walked down the road to the gorgeous Divonne Sunday Markets.
I was nervous about going to my first French class. The level of the group is a little above mine but I thought I might enjoy trying to rise to the challenge. After we finished my first ever exercise in the class, one which involved completing each written sentence with the correct form of the imperative, we went around the room taking turns at reading the sentences out loud. I counted the number of students around the table and the number of sentences left to read so that I could practice before I had to read to the others. It said, “Vous devez faire de ce monde un paradis.”
You must make of this world a paradise.