Paradise At Home

Dear Dr. Sprenger,

Thank you so much for your article Home Goings on The Sociological Imagination. As a sociologist who left her home in West Virginia many years ago, I have always carried the feeling of being misplaced or unsettled. While recently reading Alessandro Portelli’s book They Say in Harlan County, I was struck by his assertion that mountain people are homesick people. And I found an echo in your work. The truth of the matter is, that for many of us mountain people, no matter where we live, the mountains are home – true north, for better or worse. I have often longed, and feared, to return home; and my exile has lasted now nearly 20 years. Should the day ever come when I am privileged and burdened to return to my original homeplace, I am certain that my sociological imagination would find me adrift in a foreign country in spite of the comforting familiarity of people and place. Thank you again for such a thought-provoking piece.

— Lori Ann McVay, Ph.D
Queen’s University, Belfast

A Little More On Home Goings …

I was born in a small city in Ontario Canada, just north of Toronto and south of the Curve Lake Indian Reserve, but when I was seven years old my family started traveling to Florida every year. At first these were just ten-day or two week vacations during the school holiday Canadians call March Break and Americans, Spring or Easter Break, but within a one or two years, my parents bought a place near the beach and a large beauty salon in a strip mall and we started traveling there every two or three months, usually in the off season.

I remember going to Walt Disney World in early November when it wasn’t hot or crowded with tourists and my mom had to buy my brother and me thick, hooded Magic Kingdom sweatshirts since, to us at least, the Florida weather was so strangely cold. Soon, in addition to these trips, my parents started stealing a few days on the ends of our school holidays to make those visits longer and my mother, brother and I would head south for the entire summer, making what we once considered vacations seem more like relocations. By the time I was ten and my brother fourteen we had two sets of games and two sets of clothes, two sets of friends and two sets of favourite television re-runs, an Ontario set and a Florida set.

Finally, when I was I thirteen, my parents decided that in addition to the summer, we’d spend the school year there. By now they owned and operated four beauty salons and the Florida, which had once been a vacation destination to me, a paradise, was slowly losing its exotic edges and becoming my home. I remember that first year I started school in Florida. It was August, much sooner than the Canadian school year started and I’d wait for the school bus every morning roasting in the hip, back to school fashion of that fall, which was way too heavy and layered for Florida during that time of year.

Still, all the girls in my new school were over-dressed, just like in Ontario my friends and I often dressed a little too skimpy, our clothes picked to match what we read in Seventeen magazine more than the weather. (Though I’d never openly admit this to my mother, I remember freezing to death every single day of my Grade Seven winter, since I insisted on making a short, burgundy, fur lined corduroy jacket my winter coat that year. I wore it with a huge, burgundy tartan scarf, which I never wrapped around my neck, but left hanging open).

Overdressing was just the first step in my slow cultural transformation from a Northerner to a Southerner and it’s very important to note that in this cultural transformation I wasn’t alone. Many Ontarioians and northeastern Americans, (see Elizabeth Hay’s beautiful novel, Student of Weather, especially the character of Maurice Dove) have settled or made settlements in Florida, this utterly indigenous North American diaspora including once a year and seasonal tourists (sometimes called Snowbirds) and entire communities of families, who, often divorced or on their way to divorce, struggle to find their footing in sand rather than snow.

Since I was a little girl, these were my people, the kids I spent my school holidays and summers with on the beach and around the pool, my closest high school friends and their families, who like me were Northern kids transplanted to the South, all of us, as Elizabeth Hay would put it, at home on both northern and southern terrain. Though its taken my almost twenty years to realize this. For most of my adult life I’ve been looking for and writing about home in places often buried in snow: Madison, Wisconsin; Edmonton, Alberta; Winnipeg and Pine Falls, Manitoba; and Potsdam, New York, where, I’m very pleased to report that wearing one’s scarf untied and draped over a thinly insulated jacket seems to still be a fashion trend among Grade Seven girls — at least in 2007, the winter I lived there.

But what I’ve come to learn, however, is often the places where our homes lie, as well as our paradises for that matter, are often not where we think: For me right now, living in and around New York City, (so close to Ontario), seems slightly exotic to me and my quick trips to Florida to visit my mother, (the one landscape, which has stayed consistent throughout every winter of my entire life), slightly un-foreign. Leaving me to wonder if maybe I’ve made both places my paradise at home.

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