The Changing Shape of Home

I’ve been thinking about home lately. What it is. Where it is. How it changes over time.

Have you ever returned to a childhood house to discover a miniature imitation of the place you remember?

This happened to me as a young college student, on a visit back to Chicago’s Old Irving Park. I hadn’t lived in that neighborhood, or that state, for over a decade (an eternity in childhood years), and I was curious to see the place that had shaped so many of my carefree, play-filled memories.

As we pulled onto my street, I saw the windows that had held my pink ruffle gingham curtains. I saw the sidewalk where I taught myself to ride a bike. I saw the front steps where my little brothers and I had been regularly lined up for pictures, one special occasion after another.

It was the same house, but it wasn’t. For one thing, it was so… small. The grand, floor-to-ceiling windows in my personal upstairs castle turret were apparently just regular bay windows in a street-facing bedroom. The sprawling front porch was a small, covered entryway.

It was all so ordinary. There was no sign of all the monumental, life-shaping, supernaturally charged memories that happened there.

The next time I drove by that house, it was gone.

It’s true. I’ve gone by there several times since, and nothing remains but an empty lot. I’ve considered trying to learn what happened to the house. A fire? A condemned foundation? Termites? Maybe I don’t want to know. I’ve never looked into it.

Mostly it doesn’t matter, because even though that house no longer exists, it absolutely does. I return to it often. The life that happened within those walls still shapes who I am in very real ways.

That’s the thing about home. It’s more elusive than you think.

What is home, really? Is it a house? A town? Your parents? Your children? Your soulmate? Your friendships? All of those things? None of those things? This is what I’ve been wondering.

Sometimes home is OUR only thing.

When we’re new to this world, when we have to rely completely on the people who’ve brought us into it, in those early days of life, our immediate surroundings are all that exist. For good or for bad, our home is our whole world. Everything else is foreign.

But do you remember visiting friends’ houses and discovering that things were just so—different?

One friend of mine had a Doberman pinscher with a chain around its neck who would chase me up the stairs and leave me terrified to step foot outside her bedroom. No parents ever offered to rescue me from their big, black, barking monster, so I avoided her house like an over-cooked liver dinner. How could a person live with that beast?

One friend had a contraption in her kitchen that would make custom, homemade pop. No carbonated beverage had ever crossed the threshold of my house—much less been manufactured right on the premises. I wasn’t sure how to relate to parents who would encourage this sort of delightful indulgence.

One friend had a freestanding orange midcentury fireplace in the middle of her living room. I liked it, but, having grown up in a practical, no-frills household, I couldn’t imagine that any actual parent would have chosen such a whimsical feature on purpose. I assumed they bought the house despite the fireplace and just left it there because that was cheaper and easier than removing it.

These little glimpses of alternate realities started to peel back the curtain on the truth—that my home was not the only version of life. Other people were living entirely different versions. Some I liked, some I didn’t.

Still, for most of those early years, my home was my most-true place. It was the door I always returned to, the reality by which every other reality was evaluated, the place where life was “normal”.

Everyone else’s houses were a better or worse variation of the real home. Mine.

 Sometimes home is many things at once.

Eventually, though, we learn: Our home was just our home. It wasn’t the definition of normal or real or true or even good. It’s the chemical reaction that occurred when the specific people, places, and circumstances of our origins were mixed together into a cocktail of beliefs, behaviors, habits, and furniture.

Then, at some point, we walk in the door and realize home isn’t home anymore.

My dad has said that I left for college and never came back. This is close to the truth (and I’m sure that’s exactly how it felt to my parents). Actually, I was back twice—the summer after freshman year and the summer after I graduated. Then I was off and married and quickly making my own life.

It didn’t take long for home to become a complex dichotomy of past and present. Home was where I lived with my husband, and home was where I grew up with my parents. Home was where I paid rent and home was where I visited for holidays. Home was no longer just one place.

My childhood—which spanned five houses and three states—is a moving target centered on my family. It’s tender and meaningful and complicated and raw and still very real and dear to me. Home is still my childhood. But home is also my adulthood. And home is my children’s childhoods.  

Home is my parents, and home is my parenting. Home is where I’ve been and home is where I am. The further life goes, the more places home resides. Because home is where I live—and it’s also where my memories live. 

sometimes home is where our NEXT THING BEGINS.

The first apartment I shared with my now-ex-husband had a small bedroom, a smaller living room, and a microscopic kitchenette. It was tiny, but it was big enough to launch our hopes and dreams. It was new and fresh and held all that was yet to be revealed.

It was the opening credits of a movie you can’t wait to see, but also want to savor.

I recently helped my oldest move into her new apartment in Chicago. In a quick 36 hours, we painted, furnished and decorated her new space. The physical flurry and exertion helped cement the letting go. It was a practical way to bless my daughter into the place that now holds her next chapter. Her new home.

“Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” ― Matsuo Bashô

To be in a space that’s launching you into something new is beautiful and sacred. But, ironically, I’m discovering that this doesn’t always require being in a new space. I’ve lived in my current house for 11 years and, as it’s been emptying out over the past year, with all my people moving away (and some serious decluttering), it feels both bigger and smaller. This house holds my heart in its past—but it’s also inviting me into my future.

 So I threw a party.

Recently,  I decided this new season deserved some celebration. So I cleared out a bedroom and turned it into a bar, I brightened up the basement, I refreshed my upstairs, I fluffed the pillows. And, although every past gathering I’ve hosted has centered around my cozy living room or my summery screen porch, this party never landed in those areas at all. We toasted tomorrow and giggled at life in parts of my home that many of my friends had never seen. It was like being in a whole new place.

Somehow, with fewer people living in my house, I’m using more of the space. I’m discovering new corners and walls to make my own. I’m realizing there’s still room to grow.

I’m reshaping my home, and it’s reshaping me. And perhaps that’s how it’s always been.


Julie Rybarczyk (re-bar-chek) is a freelance writer, fair-weather blogger, and newly solo mom who never has to send lunch money to school again. She’s perpetually the chilliest person living in Minneapolis—so most of the year you’ll find her under layers of wool, behind steaming cups of tea. Or at