Opinion | A reflection on what it means to be home

By Thomas Riley, Staff Columnist

When I drove back east for spring break, I intended to bring my mom a book of poetry I thought she would enjoy. She must have been disappointed when I unpacked my suitcase only to realize I forgot it, but her face only dropped when I said I forgot it at home.

“Do you think of Pitt as your home?” she said.

There was an extra question hidden there — do I not think of my childhood house as my home anymore? That’s the important one. At what point did I stop coming home for break and instead start visiting my parents?

Coming home — if you choose to call it that — can feel sickening. That first turn into the driveway invites a nausea I haven’t felt since high school. It feels immature, like bringing home my first C on a test.

I swear the paint on the house looks grayer than it did my last visit, but my mom insists it’s the same. She just puts her arm around me and comments on how long my hair has gotten.

My room is empty, and the bulb burnt out. My barren walls used to boast sentimental decorations alongside video game posters I bought just to fill the space. I was always too lazy to find replacements, but looking back, those meaningless decorations were unapologetically me. Now all that remains is blue paint and tiny thumbtack holes.

“Did you miss sleeping in your bed?” my dad asks. 

He put on new sheets and tucked the edges of the comforter tight into the bedframe. It bounces like my old mattress, but the sheets hug me like a hotel bed. Maybe tomorrow I’ll arrange a wake-up call.

Home is alive —  a place that grows with you as you embrace all your life has to offer. While my old house is not dead, I still feel embalmed over break — a corpse that can do both nothing and everything.

At 16, I would gaze out my window at night to my car parked on the street, devising a plan to sneak out one night — though I never did figure out where to go. At 20, I still stare out my old bedroom window. I’m glad I can drive off whenever I please but a bit dampened to know I’ll never sneak out.

The memories come in exhibits — images preserved in each part of my old town. The neighborhood’s the same as always. Lawn after lawn, house after house, garden after — oh, I guess Jen finally got her tulips to bloom.

I visit the old hardware shop I used to work at to find a replacement light bulb for my room. Some high schooler greets me and I bite my tongue to stop myself saying, “Who the hell are you? And what happened to this place?” At some point I was the high schooler behind the counter. I wonder how many people almost said that to me when they came back for break.

The whole town was my home — not just the box I slept in each night — and I suppose this holds true of anywhere. A dorm could never be my home — what a horrible thought! But everywhere I get to experience my life in Pittsburgh could be. The shadowed, smoky benches by Frick or the damp lawn adjacent to Cathy provide me a place to stay and create memories, even if just for a little while each day.

The local mall near my house is a ghost town, and my old favorite restaurant closed down. Younger kids still grow up around here, falling in love and disobeying their parents, but they don’t do it where I used to. They have their own homes, some in places I’ve never stepped foot.

But for them it’s beautiful. Homes are emotional, built from memories we never forget. 

Home is terrifying and the worst you’ve ever felt. It’s crying into your carpet because you don’t want to throw up on your bed. It’s calling your girlfriend from the top of a parking garage to hear her say she needs you. 

But home is also amazing and filled with love. It’s kissing someone for the first time outside the school bathrooms. It’s talking to your friend so late into the night that you’re both afraid to check the time.

Home is difficult and shocking, but it’s where we grow. My life in my old home is finished. None remains but old memories, preserved for me to walk through like a museum. Labels hang on each and every door — one reads, “Mall Food Court (2017-2021) / Remember that one time?” 

I’m glad to tour my old home as I move into a new one in college. Even as I grow apart from it, I’ll never forget everything that made my old home so beautiful.

Thomas Riley primarily writes social satire and stories about politics and philosophy. Write to them at [email protected]