Homesickness

Nancy Penrose

USA

I had a new nationality: citizen of the country of longing.

Suketu Mehta 

Had I ever been homesick? It was a fair question from my friend, Priscilla, as we sat in a Seattle coffee shop and talked about my lifetime of leaps between continents. Homesick? No, not I, the world traveller from age four, the person who has lived in Iran, Laos, France, and Singapore, who loves travelling, who visits countries where Americans often do not go. Nope. Never homesick.

Later I realised my answer was false. I set to digging for why I had not remembered the times I felt homesick, for the reason I had lied, even to myself.

*****

Homesickness can kill you. Historian Susan Matt in her book, Homesickness: An American History, writes of a Catholic priest from Ireland, Reverend Father J. M. McHale. He left home in 1887 for Brooklyn, New York, where he soon began to lose his health. “In his troubled sleep he talked of Ireland and his friends there. He often murmured: ‘I am homesick. My dear country, I will never set a foot on your green shores again. Oh, my mother, how I long to see you.’ He eventually lost consciousness and died.” Cause of death: nostalgia, from ancient Greek, nostos, to return home, and algos, rooted in Latin and Greek meanings for pain. Doctors of the era considered nostalgia a serious medical condition, the potential deadliness of homesickness was recognised. 

Mid nineteenth-century America was full of people like Father McHale and people like my ancestors, immigrants from the British Isles and Europe. From research by my sister, Jean, we know that in 1833 our great-great-grandfather, William Ellsworth Penrose, left the village of Foxholes in Yorkshire, England, caught a ship from Hull, and came to America. He and his wife, Martha, settled on a farm in Independence, Iowa. My imagination probes the unknowns of William and Martha’s lives on the prairie. There must have been times — perhaps amidst a bitter winter blizzard, a fierce hot summer of thunderstorms and tornadoes — that they yearned for the Yorkshire climate tempered by the North Atlantic Ocean. I sculpt imaginings of their homesickness, their nostalgic pining for parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins left behind. The facts found in our family records do not illuminate these emotions, but I doubt these Penroses escaped the pain of having left home. 

One of Martha and William’s sons, John Ribe Penrose, served on the Union side during the American Civil War. He must have longed to return to Iowa, the place he called home, if only to escape the hardships and horrors of war. Perhaps he was amongst the thousands of soldiers diagnosed by doctors as suffering from nostalgia. During the Civil War, “some military bands were prohibited from playing ‘Home, Sweet, Home’ for fear the song might provoke the deadly illness in soldiers,” notes Matt.

*****

Up until the late 1800s and early 1900s love of home was a mark of refinement within Euro-American culture. Then a shift occurred as transportation improved and migration became easier. Homesickness “came to signify backwardness, prissiness, and a lack of ambition,” Matt writes. 

In my Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition, published in 1937, unabridged, crammed with over 600,000 words, there is only one definition of nostalgia: homesickness. Eight decades later the 2018 online version of Oxford Dictionaries, English (US), offers this modern meaning for nostalgia: “A sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.” 

In the years between dictionaries, the perception of homesickness as weakness and as a mark of immaturity was solidified. Americans were expected to subjugate themselves to corporations and government, to adopt the revered tenets of individualism and mobility. Feelings of homesickness were to be kept hidden. In this I recognise the root of my lie to my friend Priscilla when I said I had never been homesick.

*****

I will now admit to being homesick in France in 1973. I was a junior at Oregon State University in Corvallis, thrilled to be headed to Poitiers for a year of study paid for by my parents. Received with gratitude but little awareness of my privilege. I now see this year abroad differently and have come to understand it as one of my middle-class white-American advantages. 

Having already lived overseas twice in my young life — first in Iran and then in Laos — I was surprised to feel homesick in France. But when I was a child my mother and father had defined and created home for me, so no matter where in the world we landed I had never felt homesick. 

When I signed up for that year at the Université de Poitiers, I had dreamt of the French friends I would make, the magnificence of chateaus, the grandeur of great cathedrals, a croissant and café au lait every morning for breakfast, glasses of red wine with dinner, crispy baguettes with each meal. And of course, I would acquire a French boyfriend who would find me enchanting, whisper words of love to me in his beautiful Romance language, speak my name with resonant French n’s.

But I was often unhappy that year. Stuck in a bland residence hall far from downtown, infrequent buses or hitchhiking (always tainted with danger) the only way into the city, I felt isolated. My friends in France were mostly Americans or other foreign students (Hélène from Greece, Alain from Guadeloupe) who also lived in the dorms. That French boyfriend never showed up; I was too tall, too American, too different to appeal. The bread that sat in baskets on the tables of the student restaurants was stale and, it was rumoured, uneaten pieces were dumped together and served again. Hewing to their heritage that fostered a distrust of foreigners, les étrangers, the French were often wary of me even though I spoke their language quite well, having learnt it as a child in Laos. I pined for my friends at Oregon State. I missed the Cascade mountains, forests of firs, cloudy days with cool gentle rain. Sometimes I even missed my parents, not exactly cool for a 20-year-old American college student.

Rereading my journals from Poitiers I see I tried hard to make the most of that year, to stay awake to my good fortune, to keep my spirits up. I never used the word homesickness.

With time I did connect to kind French families — the Donneforts and the Léonards — who invited me into their homes. Madame Donnefort was one of my professors. Her husband belonged to the French Communist Party, which seemed exotic to me in that Cold War era when communists were considered enemies in my home country. I believe Madame wanted their two young daughters to learn that not all Americans were as evil as their father declared. His anti-Americanism centred on U.S. imperialism and the ongoing war in Vietnam where the U.S. was fighting the North Vietnamese communists. But perhaps because I too was against the war, he was always courteous to me. 

I met the other family, the Léonards, when we American students were invited into homes in the nearby village of St. Porchaire. There I admired Madame Léonard’s constant cheerfulness as she managed the swirl of their three young children. Monsieur proudly poured glasses of his homemade Pineau des Charentes, a specialty of this region in southwestern France, a beloved aperitif made from slightly fermented grape juice and Cognac. For dinner we ate spears of thick white asparagus in wine vinegar sauce, roast beef with mushrooms, and galette Charentais for dessert. 

That year was the first time I climbed onto the seesaw of missing home while held within the rich fizz of a new culture, a new place. Somewhere in the basement of my American psyche, I understood homesickness was taboo, so I buried it. That worked until Thanksgiving and a phone call to my parents.

In those pre-Internet days — before Facebook and WhatsApp, Messenger, and email and texting — communication was mostly by letters written on pale blue aerogrammes and sent via air mail, astonishing in their speed if they made the transit in only five days. Long-distance phone calls were costly and rare. My mother and father and I planned far ahead for the timing of our Thanksgiving call when they would be with my sister’s family in White Plains, New York. I recall going to the Postes, Télégraphes et Téléphones, the PTT, in downtown Poitiers, where I paid my francs, entered a phone booth, and placed the call through an operator. My father picked up. “Hello Nancy!” he said, jubilant, excited. And all I could do was burble and sob through a tsunami of tears and ache at the sound of his voice, of all their voices, as the handset was passed around. Those vibrations coming over the line — the chords of home — cracked the mask hiding my homesickness.

*****

Excavating these memories has opened new spaces of empathy for my fellow humans who have been severely and painfully dis-homed. Remembering my own small sips of sadness has pushed me to imagine the desperate homesickness of Africans wrenched from their beloved roots, lands, families, to be sent as captives into the deadly hells of bondage in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America. I mourn for Native Americans displaced, dis-homed from ancestral lands, their losses and longings usually dismissed as immature, unworthy of notice, certainly not recognised as the love-of-home mark of refinement granted to the era’s Euro-Americans. Indeed, the architect and leader of Indian removal, U.S. President Andrew Jackson, “suggested that the tribes should master their emotions,” writes Matt. As if I needed more proof of the devastating actions of my ilk, my light-skinned immigrant ancestors, whose successes — now my successes — were so often built upon genocide, violence, forced relocations, the shredded lives of the different, the darker skinned, the other. 

I am pushed to ponder the history of land near the Wapsipinicon River in Independence that my ancestors Martha and William came to own in 1863, land located in what had been territory of the Sauk and Meskwaki. By 1857, native nations had signed a long series of treaties, usually through coercion, that ceded all their Iowa lands to the United States. There must have been horrific costs to the tribes so that Penroses could eventually settle, claim ownership of a farm, plant an orchard, harvest a field.

*****

For nearly 6 years, from 1982 to 1988, I lived in New Orleans, having moved there for my husband, David’s, job. It was a place that felt foreign to me. The heat and humidity (which started in March or April) was unfamiliar. I was horrified by the insecticide spewing from city trucks that drove our Lakeview street (a fog of malathion to fight mosquitoes). I was scared by the high crime rate (tourists murdered in the St. Louis cemeteries near the French Quarter), shocked by the extremes of African American poverty and white wealth (huge government housing projects peopled by black folks while a few blocks away on St. Charles Avenue sat mansions populated by white folks). Eventually I figured out the city had a robust black middle and political class. I found a few entrées to African American culture through kind black colleagues I met through my jobs. But back then I was mostly a know-nothing about the city’s rich heritage of free people of colour, about its horrid history of having once been the largest slave market in the nation. Only recently — through reading and listening and learning from friends — have I come to understand how my skin colour, my white privilege, allowed me to live so blindly.

When I did find home in New Orleans it was in an artist’s studio that belonged to Angela Gregory, an 80-year-old woman, a long-time sculptor in Louisiana, a Unitarian (like me), a speaker of French, a fellow traveller, and, yes, a white woman. I fastened myself onto her roots in New Orleans, which stretched from French ancestors to plantation-owning grandparents (who must have held slaves though we never spoke of it) to her mentorship of a young black sculptor, Frank Hayden. Her warmth and friendship and stories made me feel like I belonged. Together we worked on a project of the heart: writing a book about her years in Paris in the 1920s learning the art of sculpting. 

But I still longed for the Pacific Northwest, missed my family there (my mother and father were ageing), the mountains (New Orleans was flat, flat, flat), the resinous tang of cedar trees (that sticks to your fingers when you pinch its scaly foliage). Often, returning to New Orleans after a visit to Oregon, I smeared away tears as the plane lifted off from the Portland airport.

Then, in 1988, the tug of geography triumphed. David and I left jobs and friends in New Orleans and took the ultimate cure for homesickness: we returned home. The impetus to decamp came with the birth of our daughter, Claire. We wanted her to feel rooted in the Pacific Northwest, wanted for her the bond we felt. And while it is true that David was raised within the sunshine and beaches of San Diego, he too had gone to Oregon State, had thrived within the rainy winters in Corvallis, had hiked the high deserts, the forests, the slopes of mountains in summer. He was happy to return to his adopted roots. 

The hardest part of leaving was saying goodbye to Angela, by then 85 years old. Indeed, I still sorrow I never saw her again; she died 2 years later when we were living in Seattle. Echoes perhaps of the kinds of sorrows felt by my Yorkshire ancestors over dear ones left behind and never seen again.

*****

In his book Maximum City, Suketu Mehta describes moving to America at age fourteen and feeling exiled from his Indian home: “When I moved to New York, I missed Bombay like an organ of my body.” In New York he existed but “lived in India, taking little memory trains,” he writes. His father, impatient with his son’s desire to return to Bombay, shouted: “‘When you were there, you wanted to come here. Now that you are here, you want to go back.’ It was then I realized I had a new nationality: citizen of the country of longing.” Yes. That’s a citizenship I too have held, yet no passport reveals.

After only 2 years in Seattle, we moved to Singapore for David’s job in the geophysics of oil exploration. I rode again the ups and downs of temporary exile from home ground.

The Ups: David and I had both lived in southeast Asia before. As a young man just out of college he had spent 3 years in Malaysia, a Peace Corps volunteer. As a nine- and ten-year old kid I had lived in Laos when my father took a post with the U.S. Agency for International Development. Returning to this region David and I had each known and loved as a temporary home, we were thrilled to share it with Claire, then 4 years old. Whenever she had a vacation from the Singapore American School, we travelled. She got a taste of Chinese opera in Beijing, witnessed a night-time celebration of Vesak Day — Buddha’s birthday — on the island of Java where candles lined the layer-cake levels of the great basalt temple of Borobudur. She glimpsed bright sunbirds darting through the rainforests of Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo as we walked beneath giant dipterocarp trees. We had friends who were Japanese, British, Canadian, South African, Dutch, and Singaporean Chinese, Eurasian, Indian, and Malay. I like to believe we taught Claire how to be a citizen of the world.

The Downs: I pined for the work life I had left behind in Seattle: organising conferences in ocean science, editing engineering research papers and reports. I missed my colleagues, those pieces of my identity. The simplistic parameters of my privileged life at age 36 in Singapore were that my husband had an exciting job, and I was the trailing spouse with a young child. I was unhappy at times, envious of David’s work, wanting identity other than Claire’s mother and David’s wife. Fortunately, in English-language-rich Singapore — a result of the city-state’s history as a British colony — I was able to patch together a professional life as writer and editor. Once again, as in New Orleans, I built a sense of belonging, of rootedness, when I forged a creative collaboration, this time with a Singaporean Chinese calligrapher, Khoo Seow Hwa. Together we wrote a book in English about this ancient art.

Today, looking back some 30 years later, I feel sorry for that unhappy younger self. I am not proud of her. Perhaps it was a required transit, a life lesson meant to make me wiser. When we returned home to Seattle in 1993, David was without a job; a position for me at the University of Washington became our financial foothold. He had the strength to remake himself into a home-based consultant and daily caregiver of Claire. It was a rebalancing of responsibilities in our marriage, a release of my Singapore resentments, a feeding of my craving for a professional life. Even so, when my job in Seattle felt overwhelming, I pined for the freedom I had had in Singapore. It’s that seesaw of the human condition, the pining for greener grass that too often means we are never quite satisfied. Mehta writes that when he finally returned as an adult to live in Bombay for 2 years with his wife and children, he missed the life he had built in New York. 

When recalling his years as a teenager in New York, Mehta characterises his longings for Bombay (which I would label as homesickness, although he does not use that word) as different from nostalgia, a feeling that he dismisses as “a simple desire to evade the linearity of time.” And my question is this: What’s wrong with that? Don’t we all want to escape that unyielding linearity whether we call it nostalgia or remembrance? Even Mehta counted himself amongst the “nostalgia-struck returnees” to India. Our longings — whether for a lost home or country or the past (which is always lost) — are often the useless yearning to bend backward the one-way arrow of time.

*****

For me the vocabulary of home aligns with the vocabulary of belonging, that mix of language, landscape, climate, smells, memories, foods, family, friends, familiarity with the way the home world works, the level of energy not required when moving amongst all that is familiar: how to dress, when and how to speak, how to enter a shop, a restaurant, how to belong, how to look like you belong (sometimes impossible; as a six-foot-tall Caucasian woman I will never look like I belong in Southeast Asia, even though my heart thinks I do). And the feeling you are in safe space. Which makes me think about those who are made to feel they do not belong in this space I call home, who lack white privilege in as-yet white-majority America because they have non-pink skin, speak Farsi or Arabic, wear a headscarf or turban or sari. 

In her book Belonging: A Culture of Place, writer and cultural critic bell hooks, a woman of colour, opens her preface with this: “Talking about place, where we belong, is a constant subject for many of us.” She writes of her childhood years in the hills of Kentucky where she lived close to the natural world within the ethics and Earth knowledge of her family’s community of rural black farmers. As soon as she graduated from high school in 1970, she left Kentucky, pushed by her desire “to leave the fierce racial apartheid that governed the lives of black folks.” She lived for more than 30 years in (amongst other places) California and New York. Ultimately, however, she “wanted to return to the place where I had felt myself to be part of a culture of belonging — to a place where I could feel at home, a landscape of memory, thought, and imagination.” She chose to live again in Kentucky. 

Leaving home and not belonging in a new place create lenses for looking back at the place you have left. As bell hooks writes, going away “can utterly transform one’s perception of the world of home.” When you do return you better understand what you love and why.

Having been a traveller, a visitor, a temporary resident, I seek to understand my not-home places. I was raised with love by a woman, my mother Lynn Penrose, who grew up in Montana, who moved to Oregon to go to college, who fell in love with my father and with the green and fertile Willamette Valley where I spent most of my growing-up years. 

My mother’s anthem — after we had lived in Iran and Laos, after she made friends in those temporary homes with Muslims and Buddhists, Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians — became lyrics set to the music of Finlandia composed by Jean Sibelius. Often called “This is My Song,” I have found YouTube videos of Joan Baez performing it and the Indigo Girls do a beautiful a cappella version. They sing “this is my home, the country where my heart is” but also of “other hearts in other lands beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.” It closes with a plea to “God of all the nations” for “a song of peace for their land and for mine.”

My mother taught me that by leaving home and unearthing your attachments to the left-behind beloved land you come to better understand the new place. You discover that people living in your temporary home can feel the same way about their home as you do about yours.

*****

In digging for answers to the question from my friend Priscilla, I have named and graphed my jolts of homesickness, charted how they changed me. And though I have created pieces of home wherever I have lived, I know that true home for me will always be on the rainy side of the Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest of North America. Like bell hooks, I circled back to childhood territory and stayed. 

There is, however, a central contradiction in my life: I love home; I love travel. I am a rooted traveller. David and I have lived in Seattle since returning from Singapore in 1993, but my lust, our lust, for the stimulations of travel continue to beckon us beyond the borders of home.

Nancy Penrose is a Guest Contributor for Panorama.