When I was growing up, home was the last place I wanted to be. It’s not that ours was an abusive or angry household: both parents loved me and my mother labored to create a calm, clean space to contain us all. It’s just that I felt suffocated.
Part of the problem was that we were immigrants. My parents were struggling to find their way in an alien culture, and, with little else to hold onto, they clung to their customs and traditions. I wanted to be “American,” to mingle with classmates, to venture into the vastness (New York City!) just beyond our door. The Middle Eastern culture from which we hailed had strict rules for women and girls, and my mother expected me to follow them. She herself was an excellent cook, a creative seamstress and scrupulous housekeeper, a devoted and dutiful wife. I rejected all of it, refusing to cook, ripping out seams, balking at my weekly chores of dusting and vacuuming and ironing. Instead I dreamt of life as a writer, a renegade, an outlaw. My role models were hobos and witches and gypsies; more than anything, I yearned to be free, longing to “walk at all risks,” like Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh.
It’s true too that our home was always cramped. At first, my parents and I lived in one rented room. Later, we were five in a tiny, two-bedroom, one-bath apartment. I shared a room, first with my infant brother and then with my elderly grandmother. When he grew older, my brother slept in the living room . . . None of us had any privacy, and so rooms of our own became cherished dreams. I moved out when I was eighteen, and I have been moving, again and again, ever since.
This year of being mostly homebound, confined to the company of my husband and our two kittens, has been–for me, as for so many others–a challenge. And also an adventure. Just this past week, when eighteen inches of snow blanketed the hills that surround our upstate New York house, I did not set foot outside for a full seven days, spending my time cooking, cleaning, and knitting–yes, knitting! My grandmother had been a knitter. And for the longest time I’d wanted nothing to do with my grandmother.
These days, to my surprise, I’m learning to value the women’s work my mother and grandmother tried to teach me, finding pleasure in the slow rhythms and rich textures of needlework; the simple, repetitive steps of preparing daily meals.
And this house where we find ourselves: it’s a twelve-hundred square foot, two- hundred-year-old farmhouse deep in the countryside, a slightly ramshackle, tumbledown affair. But it’s a house with a deep history, a history that binds me in its spell.
When my brother acquired the house as a ski getaway in 2003, he befriended the neighbors, Elnora Mulford and her son Gordon, each of whom lived in modern homes on either side of this one. Elnora had moved to this farmhouse as a young bride in the 1930s. Gordon was born in the bedroom where we now sleep; he lived here until his own marriage in the 1960s.
I first started spending time in the house in 2005, after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Slowly, as my brother used the house less and less, I came to use it more and more . . . until four years ago, when my brother turned it over to me and my new husband Mike.
But until this year, I hadn’t actually lived here.
It wasn’t a deliberate, conscious choice. Just before the lockdowns began, I was at a writing retreat in New Hampshire. Mike had planned to spend a month alone here—a retreat of his own. On March 14th I returned in a panic; a few days later I insisted on adopting two new kittens (my beloved cat Ginger having died a few months earlier) . . . and so, while the pandemic raged in New York City, we burrowed into this country home, little dreaming that the days would become weeks would become months. Although we visited the city occasionally, the cats kept us bound. They were having enough trouble adjusting and we didn’t want to traumatize them by displacing them again. Perhaps it was ourselves we didn’t want to traumatize.
As the days continue to stream past, I discover that this house is the perfect container for my dreaming self. Unlike any other place I’ve lived, it has an upstairs and a downstairs, although the upstairs is no more than a finished attic. There’s even a very unfinished basement, visibly dug from the rocky earth. There are windows (many of them old and cracked) on all four sides. And, best of all, there are layers and layers of palpable history: the massive rough-hewn beams that frame the house; an old metal bedstead left here by the Mulfords; antique chests and dressers purchased at local auctions by my brother and his partner; artwork that Mike and I bought during trips abroad; and now, best of all, throws and blankets and shawls I’ve recently knitted. Outside, too, there are perennials I planted just a few years ago, bushes and trees that have flourished since my brother first set them in the ground, a massive Norway spruce we believe to be at least as old as the house.
When my parents left Egypt, they left behind everything they’d grown up with, all the objects that carried their deepest associations and memories. They taught me to scorn such things—what others value as mementos or souvenirs—rightly reasoning they can be lost in a moment. But while we have them, it is lovely, I’m learning, to be grateful for them, to let the spirits embedded within them, the memories and feelings they evoke, surround and comfort us. As I move through this house, I feel bound to my own and others’ histories, lodged in a rich and complex life that nurtures and sustains me. And as I sit still and knit, I sense myself knitting (knotting) up the by now long, loose threads of my own life, shaping them into a coherent and comforting whole.
I am so grateful to have this chance, feeling, as William Wordsworth hoped for himself over two hundred years ago, that my days can now be “bound each to each by natural piety.” To be homebound, I’m learning, can be a gift.
Joyce Zonana is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey. She served for a time as co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual, and is also literary translator. Her most recent translation is Tobie Nathan’s A Land Like You (Seagull Books), a novel that celebrates the lives of Arab Jews in Egypt in the first half of the twentieth century.