I vividly remember the feeling of first stepping off the plane in Los Angeles for college orientation. I was halfway in dreamland and a little nauseous, and all I could think was that L.A. was not the paradise I had expected. The skyline was carved out of glass and concrete, and the palm trees looked like magazine cutouts. Even in my dazed, jet-lagged state, my stomach sank. On the drive from the airport to my university, I felt certain I had made the wrong decision.
This December, I stepped off another plane—this time back in New England. My best friend picked me up, and we stopped at Al’s for burgers and milkshakes on the way home. Yet I had the same lump in my throat.
Vermont had become the ghost of an old home.
Some phenomenon occurs between the first month of college and your first trip back home. When your new life becomes more routine than thrilling, you fall in love with everything you thought you hated about your old home. Vermont was more charming than boring, a quaint wonderland with quirks I no longer turned my nose up at. I missed autumn leaves and the smell of rain, the hideous ‘70s yellow of my porch railing, the Saturday morning farmers’ market, the creaky floors of the bookstore, the overpriced local coffee at my favorite cafe, even the twenty-minute walk to my high school. Eleven years in the same tiny town hadn’t made it any more interesting, but somehow, six months away turned it into the New England post card my Californian friends perceived it to be.
My first trip home was winter break of my freshman year. My second was winter break a year later. For those of us who ran off to a college across the country, frequent trips home aren’t feasible (or fundable). This means that a lot can happen between homecomings. It means that my life in California solidified. My friendships strengthened, I got a boyfriend and a job, and somewhere along the way I fell in love with Los Angeles’ unexpected beauty. While I was busy being homesick for Vermont, I failed to notice that I was creating a very different home in California.
The thought had been festering in the back of my mind for weeks: You don’t miss it enough. That’s not to say I didn’t miss New England at all; I was just no longer grieving for home. The ache in my chest was gone, replaced by a contentedness I’d never thought I could feel 3,000 miles away from everything I knew, with no safety net or backup plan. I didn’t know what to do with this contentedness, so guilt crept in. It felt like I had left a younger version of myself behind without meaning to, and in doing so I had abandoned my mother and my friends and the important emotions and relationships I had stored up in my New England home.
I returned home this Christmas a different person than when I last left. Different places present different opportunities and lessons and types of beauty. You can only make a place into a home by exploring it, and in doing so that place and its people will transform you—as well they should.
Inevitably, the transition to college—especially one far from home—is lonely. Nothing about it feels safe or comfortable, and you have to live with that for a while. The result, if you allow it, is a new relationship with a place, and an evolved relationship with your past. Hopefully, you will always have a home in your hometown; hopefully, it will never again be the only place you are at home.