I grew up in a small town in rural New Jersey. For those not from the Garden State, the words “New Jersey” might conjure up images of shopping malls and freeways, concrete and traffic. There are parts of the state like that, for sure. But that’s not where I grew up. I grew up in a beautiful mix of farmland and the woods, of cows and deer, of cornfields and wildflowers. It’s not unusual to see deer or bears or turkeys, skunks or raccoons or groundhogs.
My childhood house — where my parents still live — is next to a wooded, swampy piece land that has never been developed. You can see a total of about four other houses from their deck on the side of the house. When the trees drop their leaves for the winter, you might be able to see one or two more neighbors, but only off in the distance.
Just around the corner, some beavers dammed up the stream to create a wetland. Across from there, a couple of horses graze on a grassy hillside. To get to school, we drove past a lake, a pond, a couple of cornfields, and a dairy farm where they used to cross the cows twice a day every day. Traffic stopped while the herd made their way from farm to pasture and back again.
It takes no less than fifteen minutes to get to the nearest town center for grocery stores and other shopping. Unless you need just a couple things — like milk and bread — then you can go to the local market, but prices are usually a little bit higher. It’s still a couple of miles along winding roads to get there though, past two more lakes and a Christmas tree farm, to “the highway,” the main thoroughfare through the county, but still a two-lane road.
Growing up, this was the center of my universe: our house in rural New Jersey. It was a beautiful, safe place to grow up and the childhood version of me loved that my younger sister and I could play out back, making mud pies or taking our bikes through wooded paths. We could clip a leash to our dog’s collar, and take her on a walk down to “the cove.” We could strap on our helmets and bike the whole two miles around the lake. Or, we could just put on our bathing suits and head out to our above-ground pool to make whirlpools and race from end to end. Our big backyard stretched out far behind the house with a swing set and bike shed, and it was home to a million games of make-believe.
Now, when my husband and I make the forty-five minute drive to my parents’ house, I realize how far out that house really is. The center of my world is not the center of anything else. The house sits on the tip of the township, which is shaped like an arrowhead pointing northwest toward the Delaware River and Pennsylvania. Our family home is almost as far out of our town as it can be, just feet from the borders of two other towns in either direction. We’re also only a few minutes from the state border.
The drive is lovely once you get off the highway, wooded and winding. We usually skirt the main town centers and stick to the back roads that lead us across two one-lane bridges and past all the farms and landmarks that marked the way to school.
There’s one last big hill before you turn the corner to my parents’ house. As you crest the hill and start the descent, you’re looking straight at the Appalachian mountains, covered in trees. In fall, it’s at its most gorgeous, with leaves of gold and orange and red. There’s always been one tree taller than the rest, sticking way up past the treeline, looking like so out of place. I used to imagine as a child, getting a pair of scissors and snipping it from the landscape.
That house feels far from the center of anything now. I live less than a mile from the center of my own town now, less than a couple miles from three or four highways. It’s a bit more congested and noisy, but it’s also quiet on our dead-end street and full of life and activity. I love where we live, but I also love where I came from. It’s part of who I am, just like every place I’ve lived: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, France. If “home is where the heart is,” then I must have left little pieces of my heart in all these places, because I’ve always felt quite at home in all of them.
And there’s something really special about coming home: that little sigh you feel from deep inside as you make the last turn and relax into the rhythm of something so familiar.
As I’ve been working on a longer story about home and community and the journey towards both, I’ve been thinking about what makes a place feel safe and secure and familiar. I’d love to hear your stories about places you love! Leave me a comment below about your home, past or present.