My destination was somewhere along West Neck Road. Neck of what? Is there an East Neck Road?
Three miles along, it was, but different people have different ideas of what three miles is, so I began to peer through the darkness at house numbers about a mile down the road. The car behind me soon figured out that I was looking for something in the dark, and roared past me. Good.
Three miles was a good guess: the lights were still on in many parts of the old farmhouse as I drove up, and my bathrobed hostess appeared in the doorway. It was pushing ten o'clock. Two dogs the size of loveseats sniffed at me until they were satisfied. "Bernese Mountain dogs," Ann said, as she carried my suitcase. "They're ours. My sister and her family moved in last week, though, and so now there's another dog and two more cats. I think there are five or six cats here now, so you'll be right at home."
Five or six cats is almost enough.
I was to sleep in the room of one of their daughters -- abandoned for college when the Spice Girls were still big: their poster hangs on the wall. She stenciled yellow stars on the blue wall herself. Some of her Cds are still here, a couple of elastic ponytail holders, pictures of her in elementary school, eager and confident in her red soccer uniform; mugging with two high school friends; lovely in a white prom dress; arm in arm with her sister on another special-dress-day. College is far from here: Colorado. On the nightstand are some books about the Rocky Mountains. When she was a senior in high school, she lay in this bed and looked at them, wondering what it would be like to be there. When I turn out the light, more stars appear on the ceiling. They glow for a long time, and then they fade away.
Relatives and animals come and go as the need arises in this old house. In the morning, Ann's husband makes omelettes, then helps his little niece with her homework until it is time for another daughter's boyfriend to walk her to school. She is in the second grade. She goes to the same school their kids went to when they were little. It is delicious to have a little person in the house again.
"The kids think the house should always be just the same," Ann laughs. "When they come back at Thanksgiving, I don't know what I'll do. I've got people in almost all the rooms."
We think home should stay the same. We can change, but we don't want home to change. Don't want our parents to change. Want the place of childhood to remain, a refuge, if we need it, from the difficult present, the encroaching future.
Of course, the place of all our childhoods does remain: there it is, intact, within us. Press the right button and you're five years old again. Press it again and you begin to act like it. All of what has made us remains locked within us, and sometimes it pops out again, asserting itself absurdly in the context of some adult situation where it sticks out like a sore thumb. "Oops," we say, if we have learned to identify it. "Sorry. that was childish of me."
Childlike is what we want to be, not childish. Full of trust, open to wonder, always interested in things, ready to love, eager to play. Secure at home. No matter where home is now.