The Place Where

A trip back to my place of birth and home for a few decades leads to ruminations on home – what it has been for deep thinkers and poets, and what it is for me.


Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.  Robert Frost

Forget Robert Frost.  Home is the place where, when you have to go there, you can’t remember the one-way streets. 

Heading to a meeting, I struggle to visualize the address and plan my path to it.  It’s been a long while since I navigated downtown Edmonton: which roads are one way, again?  Trying to keep it simple, I turn onto Jasper Avenue—the original main drag and still blessedly bidirectional—intending to make my way east to where I’ll turn north to the parkade that’s been recommended.  Instead, I find one side of the avenue all dug up with road or subway tunnel reconstruction of some sort: left-hand turns are prohibited for several blocks.  With the river valley cutting in from the south, I’m also about to run out of right-hand-turn options.    

Muttering, I take the last possible right turn where a short jog south will allow me to skirt the edge of the river valley, wiggling my way back west to the cross-street I need.  It ain’t elegant, but it works.  A few hours later, after my meeting, I surface from the underground parking lot and retrace my steps out of the downtown, lacking the confidence to extemporize in this city that was once my home.

Heading south across the High Level Bridge, I enter more-familiar territory.  There’s the coffee shop where I met friends from university; the theatre where I saw Love Story and Klute; the pizza parlour the extended family has been eating at for 40 years.  The restaurant where I used to eat with an old-lady friend and the drive-through ATM I took her to before our meals.  The church I attended as a pre-schooler.  The Boston Pizza where we celebrated some win or other in high school. 

Continuing south, I pass the first house I owned.  The first house my parents owned; the first house I remember.  The corner with the ESSO station where we went to see Santa Claus on Christmas Eve afternoon (he’d already gone back to the North Pole), and the hair salon where they cut my bangs too short when I was five.  The merge lane that provoked my only car accident when I was twenty-five.

You can’t go home again.  Thomas Wolfe

Through my first fifty years I made my home in four cities in a free-form rotation: Edmonton, Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton, Calgary.  Since moving to Ottawa, I’ve gone back West any number of times but it isn’t, you know, the same. 

The places aren’t the same: in Edmonton alone, the theatre and the restaurant I remember have changed hands and names, more than once; the ESSO station and the hair salon are gone completely.  I’m not the same: new experiences, attitudes and perspectives overlay the old.  The situation isn’t the same: ‘visiting’ is not ‘living in’.

I’m hardly the first to discover Thomas Wolfe was right.  Yearning for home, making sacrifices to pay for the trip, immigrants tell of finally going back to their homelands only to find that it isn’t, you know, the same.  The place isn’t the same.  They aren’t the same.  Being a visitor isn’t the same.

That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.  William Shakespeare

Do Edmonton and my other first-fifty-years cities still qualify as ‘home’?  I dunno.

I do know they’re the places where people speak with no accent to my ear.  Where the angle of the light is right for the time of year.  Where I know when the crocuses will appear in the spring, and when the leaves will turn colour in the fall.  Where the snow is as crunchy and squeaky as I expect.  Where I trip over single memories—or bump into knee-deep stacks of them—on every corner, because I know what used to be on that corner, whether it’s a decade or a lifetime ago.

Maybe Robert Frost had it right, after all: ‘Home is the place where’.  Where what?  Frost had his answer; I have mine.  And in any home of mine, it’s OK that they’re not the same. 

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12 Comments

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12 Responses to The Place Where

  1. Dave J

    Isabel, if you know when the crocuses will appear this spring please let us Edmontonians know, because we are not sure there is even going to be a spring.

    • Isabel Gibson

      Dave J – Umm, they’re coming in two weeks. Yeah, that’s it. At ‘home’ (i.e. the place I live right now), the earliest ones are already up, bloomed, and practically done.

  2. Jim Robertson

    I know the feeling. Having grown up in Ottawa South, I then moved around to Calgary – Winnipeg – Ottawa – St Albert, Alberta – Toronto and back to Ottawa. Things just aren’t the same when you go back.

    Toronto even in the last 13 years has grown taller everywhere, Calgary’s downtown has grown up and the city expanded and Ottawa South (with some one way streets changed) is now called Old Ottawa South.

    How do you think that makes people feel adding “old” in front of their home neighbourhood……

    • Isabel Gibson

      Jim R – Yes, I guess a new ‘Ottawa South’ has superseded the original, but will they do the right thing and call it Ottawa South Classic? Not on your life!

  3. Paul Coffman

    Someone has said, “Home is not where you came from, it’s where you end up.”

    • Isabel Gibson

      Paul – Hmm. I like it. (And can you hear that high-pitched zinging sound that reminds you of a trout taking a lure and heading out across the lake with a hook in its jaw? That’s the sound of my unpaid research assistant taking the hook of looking up said quote and getting us the particulars.) Somebody should do a book of ‘all’ the quotes about home. Barbara?

      • steven

        I don’t have time to do this properly today, but here’s a few similar sentiments.

        “Home is not where you come from, but where you are.” Claude Julien (not the hockey coach). [quoted here, details in the footnote]

        “Home is not where you come from, it’s where you’re going.” Eric Sonnenschein. [his website]

        “Some people say home is where you come from. But I think it’s a place you need to find, like it’s scattered and you pick pieces of it up along the way.” Katie Kacvinsky, Awaken. [google books]

  4. Jim taylor

    It sounds like Whyte Avenue, Strathcona, the edges of the university district. Or maybe I just think I recognize those details because they are so universal that I could recognize them in Saskatoon or Prince Rupert…. Anyway, our daughter Sharon lived just off Whyte Avenue for about 20 years. Some parts of it began to feel like second home.
    Jim

    • Isabel Gibson

      Jim T – Right you are – I owned a home just two blocks south of Whyte, and was born in one just 12 blocks south. (Well, not really born in the house, but you know what I mean.) With respect to ‘universal characteristics’ — maybe, in some ways, cities are like airports – after a while, they all start to look so much the same that you can walk into a new one and feel that you’ve been there before. That feeling of familiarity is very comfortable and comforting.

  5. I was “home” for six months in three visits over a year. On the boardwalk, the ocean to my right, the junky little shops (still there!) to my left, my sister and I walk to the pier, out to the end. I can feel every cell r e l a x. But to live there again? Couldn’t. My home town and I don’t have a place for each other in our lives any more.

    • Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – Maybe Paul’s quote captures this dilemma – it looks, sounds, smells and even feels like ‘home’ at the cellular level, but it isn’t where we really are anymore. Sort of like listening to the music of our youth – it’s nostalgic-enjoyable, but not what we spend our time on today. Or revisiting books/movies we once enjoyed but have grown beyond (or moved past, at any rate). I suspect that we may also hold intellectual views that still ‘feel’ fine, but that wouldn’t hold up to any close examination by our current selves! We’ve lost the place for ‘whatever it is’ in our lives, as you say.