We lived in California until that summer, from down south. We didn’t want to move. Least ways, Mammie and Mama and Papa were reluctant. We kids were as excited as you would be if you heard the news you were going to ‘paradise’, where the rain fell, where there was no drought, and where we would have a place of our own—with air conditioning for summer, and heaters for the winter.
That was another thing. We would actually have a winter, not the pallid weeks of moist lukewarmness that was named after what it wasn’t. It was said that snow fell at least a foot deep. A foot deep! I had never even experienced snow. The boys, Jenna, and me were excited—you can say that again.
But just as sure as we were thrilled, our parents and Mammie were not. For them, this was not pleasure, but necessity. Leaving the home Papa had grown up in; leaving the country where he had met his wife; leaving Mammie’s first ‘place of her own’…their list went on. Papa was not his usual sturdy self the last days we spent there. He seemed…wilted, somehow. Mama put on a brave face for us, so we wouldn’t worry. And Mammie…
Mammie obstinately refused to budge from her home.
“George built this place,” she’d say, wagging her finger at Papa. “He built it with his own strength, using his own money, and made it his own place—I ain’t gonna give it up!” She knew Papa’s weakness of keeping the family place—and she always got him. Or at least she got him to be quiet and back down.
What convinced her to go was when Papa finally spoke to her firmly, laid out the reasons why we’d needed to go, and ended with, “Mammie, we are going. You gotta accept that. It’s a done thing.” And that closed it.
On the morning of our departure, I stood, staring out into the backyard, wondering half-heartedly if I’d ever see my friends here again. I let out a long sigh. Papa came up behind me, his firm presence calming me. Putting his hand on my shoulder he asked me, “Are you ready?”
“Papa, ain’t I never gonna see my friends again?” I groaned.
“Now honey, you can write—” he began.
“Francie don’t know how to write.”
“I’m sure there are—”
“No there aren’t; I thought of everything, and ain’t nothing left to be thought of.” I let my shoulders sag.
Papa gently turned me about so I could face him, lifting my chin so that I stared straight into his deep brown eyes.
“Lena,” he began slowly. “You know why we can’t stay here?”
“Sure, I know why. Taxes are better in the other place,” I mumbled.
“Lena, we can’t afford to stay here.”
A loud silence reigned. As much as I wanted to overthrow it, I remained unable to speak. Something of what he said moved me. He went on at last.
“We can’t afford to keep this place. And as much as I love it,” here he choked. I looked away. Papa, crying! I had never so much as seen tears gather in his eyes. My stern Papa! “As much as I love this place, with all our friends and this dear house, we can’t stay.” He said it so sadly I felt ashamed. After a time, he went on.
“I love it here, but we got to be brave. Look at your Mama.” He gestured to her tall form, as she helped Jenna get ready, singing as she went, being brave. “Lena, you gotta set an example for Jenna and the boys. They all look up to you. Sitting here and complaining ain’t gonna do anything ‘cept bring us all down.”
I looked up at him.
“You gotta be a strong girl for us, Lena. And always remember that home is where the heart is.” He put a hand across his chest as he said that. And suddenly, I felt good again, like he’d given me a great big bowl of ice cream and told me if I was good, I could eat it all. I wish he had. I sure would’ve liked to have some ice cream right then in that sweltering heat. Alright, that’s not quite how it was. But you know the feeling. It was as if he’d given me something to look forward to; like his words planted a seed of hope deep down inside.
The trip over was long. Piled up in the back of Papa’s old green and brown truck, we were baking. Mammie and Mama had at least brought portable fans for the adults in the front seats. All we had was warm wind in our faces. After two hours, we stopped playing games. The hot sun beat furiously down on us. Laying my head down, I covered it with my arm and slept.
We arrived two days later, after some hard traveling.
“Lena, do ya ever think we’ll see our friends again?” asked Jenna, fearfully. My first impulse was to say no. But then my conversation with Papa came back to me. Slowly, I put my arm around her shoulders and told her I was sure we’d see ‘em again. The fear left her face as we walked over to our new home. And I thought, Papa’s right. I do have influence over the kids; I need to use it for their good, no matter what I feel.
Our house was orange. Pink-orange. The former owner hadn’t liked the color and how small it was, so he was selling it to us cheap. I smiled. I liked it well enough. It was cheerful, after the dull grey little shack we’d had in California. Colorful flowers grew wildly, untamed among the tall grass. Jenna and I raced to the porch.
“Ow!” I stopped in the middle of the yard. “Ow! What is this?!” Looking down, I saw what I thought was grass had been stinging nettles—a whole host of them. In pain, I stumbled the rest of the way to the house and sat on the front steps and joined Jenna. She hadn’t stopped, but now, I could see, she was feeling that same sting. She looked at me, and we suddenly burst out laughing.
That’s the first memory I have of our new home.
Our first day passed in a blur. Unloading bags and furniture, helping Papa bring it into the house, unpacking with Mama, and helping Mammie cook dinner at last. As I bent over the steaming pot of red stew, I breathed in deeply. Ah, the smell of paprika and chili powder's got no comparison! I can smell it right now, as I write. It makes my mouth water just thinking of it. My meditation on the goodness of those spices was soon interrupted.
“Lena! How many times have I told you to stir the soup!? Don’t just let it sit there. It’ll stick to the pot. Now give me that spoon!” Mammie faced my shocked and, I suppose, guilty face, with determination. Her lips were pressed tight into a hard line which only she could break when she talked, which she did do pretty often, as she muttered under her breath. Finally, she broke out aloud, “This place ain’t home, and will never be for me.”
“But Mammie, home is where the heart is,” I answered, quoting Papa.
Mammie let the spoon clatter on the counter, stuck her hands on her hips, and looked at me.
“Girl, my body may be here, but my heart and soul are still in California. If home is where the heart is, my home’s in California. Girl, ain’t nothin’ gonna change that!” And then she sighed. “Look at your Mama; she doin’ the laundry by herself. You're no good in the kitchen, with all your dreaming. Now you go on and help her. Go on!” She dismissed me with a swat from the wooden cooking spoon.
I trudged through tall grass over to Mama as she wrung out Papa’s white undershirts, just like she wrung the chickens’ necks.
“Mama? Need some help?”
She smiled wearily. “Come on and get one o’ those rags. You can help me squeeze ‘em out.” We worked in silence for a while, interrupted only by the wind in the trees. I needed to think out what Mammie said.
Home was where the heart was. I thought that was simple. Wherever you go, there goes your heart, and therefore your home. But Mammie’s heart didn’t come with her, so she said. Her home was in California. Why was it so confusing?
“Yes, girl?” she smiled.
“Papa said that home is where the heart is. He told me not to worry,” I explained.
She nodded. “That’s right.”
“Just now, Mammie told me she left her heart in California. She says her home’s still there. How does that work?”
Mama shook out Papa’s sock, hung it, then turned to me. “Lena, sometimes people are stubborn. Unwilling to do what they should do.” I cocked my head; where was she going with this? “Your Mammie’s a good woman, Lena. She raised your Papa to be just like he is now, a good man. But she stubbornly refuses to move on with her life. She became too attached to her old home to give it up, even when necessary.”
I nodded. She continued.
“Your Papa’s right when he said home is where the heart is. Some people make the choice to leave behind what they love and start fresh, bringing a hopeful heart. They are willing to make their home wherever their hearts are. Others do not want to make a new home, are unwilling to start again, and, like Mammie, they fix one spot as home and can never make themselves feel at home anywhere except there.”
I slowly nodded as I began to understand.
“Life for people like Mammie is harder because of that choice. That’s why often she isn’t happy. But we just gotta keep loving her.” We shared a knowing smile and I gave Mama a side hug.
I liked how Mama put it. And I knew that as much as I loved California, my home would always be where my heart was.