I was recently reading Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance by Ruth Emmie Lang, and there’s this scene where one of the characters is standing at the stove taking pancake orders from her children. “Banana!” “Chocolate chips!” “Blueberries!” they’d shout at their mother, and she would diligently make their orders.
While I was reading this lovely scene of a family having Sunday breakfast, I couldn’t help but see my mother standing at that stove, her left hand resting at her hip while she flipped our pancakes with the ancient plastic spatula; the handle melted from leaning against a hot pan. It was me shouting that I wanted blueberries in my pancakes. It was me sitting at my family’s kitchen table, swinging my legs while my dad read his Korean newspaper next to me.
I had to shake my head a few times and remember that this isn’t a story about me or my family or my house. And yet, here I am thinking about that childhood home and lending it to the story I’m reading.
Has anyone imagined their own home as the house in a book you’re reading? Perhaps it’s just me, but whenever I read a story and the characters are in some home, that home was mine. It’s a surreal moment when the story you’re imagining in your head uses your memories to help build out the scene.
You find yourself reading through some sisters watching TV together. Suddenly you realized that the TV room they’re in reminds you exactly of the one from your childhood. When characters talk about baking chocolate chip cookies, it’s my oven they’re using in my childhood kitchen with the kitchen table I used to do my homework.
Fiction requires a little bit of imagination, but sometimes everyday objects and moments lend themselves to that image. You take these characters whose faces you develop in your mind and you place them in their world. It’s like sculpting in your head and sometimes I just find using old memories of my family house to make up the difference. I know I do this all the time when I watch a movie trailer for a book I plan on reading. Those actors turn into the characters I’m imagining.
I always think of my house whenever I’m reading literary fiction. It could be beach home in Nantucket. It could be a farm in Nebraska. No matter where the setting or what is taking place, I will always think of my home.
We don’t live there anymore and we haven’t lived there in years. I haven’t been back to my old hometown since I was 22. I guess that was 10 years ago now. My sister made a pilgrimage back there a few years ago. She was out on Long Island visiting her husband’s family and decided to detour to our old neighborhood.
She took some photos and sent them to me. The siding was a darker color than I remember. The owners appeared to have added an addition and the crab apple tree that sat in front was missing.
These people will never deal with the smell of rotting fruit as the crab apples fall in the winter. They’ll never see my wallpaper in my bedroom. They probably don’t care about the rows of firs we planted in the backyard. It wasn’t the house I remembered and somewhere deep in my mind I liked it better that way. My childhood home will never the be same childhood home for someone else.
Physically, I know this isn’t my house anymore and perhaps I’ll never see it again in my life. But this was the place I lived the longest, where all my imaginings would come to life. This was the place I dreamt about what I would be and who I would love and what would come of all of us in the future. It’s that place you love; the place you can never replace and hopefully those memories I’ll never squander.
And yet, I always find myself going back there. With every story I read, I’m transported to my little bedroom with the faded wallpaper and the posters of actors I found attractive. The streets are my streets. The high schools are my high school. The house is my house.
Maybe deep down that home will always be my home and it’s where I would want to be inside these stories. I spent the years after that house moving from one dwelling to another. I would pack up my things and find another apartment and live there for another few years before moving again. Every place I go, I would dig up those roots and replant them somewhere else. Reading is as consistent to me as that home and those memories and honestly, I don’t think I could imagine any greater place for those characters to live.