‘I’ll come and see you.’
‘You won’t know where I am. I’m not in my own home. They’ve moved me again.’
My mother was only five minutes away, so I drove round to reassure her she lived at number 42 Windmill Grange, as she had done for the last five years, and that I did, indeed, know exactly where she was. But even as I arrived, hugging her, making her favourite black coffee in her most beloved and familiar mug, she insisted that she wasn’t where she should be.
This had become a new (but I don’t think unusual) stage of my mother’s dementia. Her panicked phone call. Her belief that she had moved flats into a new one that looked the same as the first but was different. Her distress. And her homesickness. Homesickness wasn’t, however, new to my mother. She had often talked about how badly she’d suffered when evacuated and separated from her sister during the war at the age of nine. Being torn from home at that age had left a scar that had gradually faded, but erupted again at times of unhappiness or stress. Since Alzheimer’s kicked in, this old, dreaded sense of being uprooted haunted her all over again.
What was it my mother missed so painfully when she said she was homesick now? Flicking through photographs in an attempt to jog her memory, I asked if it might be Scotland, where she had lived with my father for twenty-five years before moving south, after he died, to be closer to us. But she had no recollection of the house they’d shared. It was in a spectacular spot on the south-west coast, but she couldn’t relate to pictures of its sweeping views of the Solway, or its garden brimming with camellia and rhododendrons. That period of her life was a blank.
The home in London where we’d grown up, before she moved to Scotland, was similarly lost to her. Even photos of the distinctive arched window over the stairs, the kitchen window at the front, the copper beech tree in the back, wouldn’t bring it back.
My mother recalled the odd detail from her many childhood homes (she had moved often in her early years). These long-term memories were brief but luminous; a mirror her mother turned to the wall in a thunderstorm (because she believed this action would protect them from lightning!); a green baize door in a kitchen; a stream that ran along the bottom of a garden.
As we talked, I realised it wasn’t a specific place my mother felt homesick for, it was more a feeling. A sense of belonging. A sense, indeed, of who she was.
My mother’s homesickness made me wonder what the concept of ‘home’ really means. We all have a need to belong, and it’s easy to imagine this occurs in the place where we were once most our true selves: our childhood homes. Writers who return to the same setting in their novels time and again often talk of this elusive attempt to pin down a place in time that is significant for them.
Capturing and defining a place that holds meaning for the author drives many works of fiction: Dickens’s London, the Brontës’ Pennines, Du Maurier’s Cornwall, and in contemporary fiction, Zadie Smith’s north-west London or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Nigeria. Of course, at the more extreme and harrowing end of the subject are the stories of those forced by war or circumstance to flee their homes; such as the accounts of women and child refugees in Malala Yousafzai’s We Are Displaced.
Among authors who have dealt head-on with homesickness, Johanna Spyri’s depiction of the affliction in her children’s novel Heidi has remained the most enduring for me. When Heidi begins to sleepwalk on a regular basis through the city house she is sent to live in, away from her beloved mountains, the doctor diagnoses homesickness. Sure enough, once she is back in the mountains Heidi’s fretful night wanderings cease.
Few of us will have grown up in idyllic herb-scented Alpine air surrounded by the gentle clang of goat bells, but many of us – especially as children – will have experienced that sense of misery that arises when we’re torn away from the familiar and comfortable.
As adults, revisiting the home we knew as children is almost always disappointing, as Orwell shows us so poignantly in Coming Up for Air. His middle-aged protagonist, George Bowling, goes in search of his childhood home in ‘Lower Binfield’ a place he remembers as an idyllic village on the Thames. He wants to recapture a more innocent time in his life, and to find the pond where he failed as a child to catch the carp he remembers swimming there. To his dismay, the pond has become a rubbish dump, and his childhood house turned into a teashop. The whole place is unrecognizable. Bowling’s thirst for a time and place he considered his true home is never to be satisfied… because it is no longer there.
We don’t have a word for this kind of disillusionment in English, but there is one in Welsh: Hiraeth, which I understand means yearning for a time or place that doesn’t exist any more.
Hiraeth is, then, a more accurate word for the feeling my mother tried to express as her dementia progressed, because what she missed – the place she was homesick for – was impossible to identify and probably no longer there either. More probably what she was searching for was a sense of who she actually was, her self. Just as impossible to find, now the disease was eroding any sense of who she had been, as Bowling’s vanished childhood home.
My mum had to move again when her Alzheimer’s got worse, to one room in a care home. It was in a part of England she had never got to know. It often struck me as poignant that my mother – with her yearning for a feeling of being at home – had no idea where, geographically, the room was that she was eventually to die in. The things around her, her photographs, her few pieces of furniture, her paintings, were all we could provide to create a sense of familiarity.
The word nostalgia – literally ‘sickness for home’ – was once considered an illness you could die from. In an age where we recognize so many psychological conditions once overlooked, it seems ironic that this one is no longer taken very seriously. Heidi’s doctor was aware of it, and dealt with it accordingly. But that was at the end of the nineteenth century, when communities were more static, and people lived in the same place all their lives. Now that we move around more, we are perhaps quicker to dismiss the importance of a real sense of home, or the cruel feelings of depression homesickness may bring in its wake.
When I’m writing, I often feel that the process is an attempt to capture a sense of home. By trying to describe or pin down places that have that meaning for me, I feel I’m working through my own sense of nostalgia. But the writing always seems to fall short of what I am attempting — just the way returning to the childhood home that can no longer exist as we remember it is bound to do.
Nevertheless, the day my mother died, my brother and I sat with her all day.
I like to imagine that with her favourite music playing, the scent of the perfume she had used all her adult life in the air, and the sound of our voices as we flicked through photos and reminisced together, in her last moments, as she gave up the struggle to remember any of the actual houses she had lived in, my mother might have felt some kind of homecoming.