More than a decade ago I read that Gabriel Garcia Marquez had residences in several capitals of the world (Mexico City, Havana, New York City, Barcelona). What aroused my interest was the fact that those places were similarly furnished and equipped with networked computer terminals so that, wherever the great man happened to be, he could continue his writing with a simple click of the mouse. Impressed and envious, I wondered why he needed to live in so many places. Yet having a second residence for vacations, or for a change of scenery, was one of my dreams.
When we purchased our first home — a brand new townhouse on three levels in Columbia, Maryland, it seemed so spacious, so beautiful, and the backdrop of trees one could see from the living room and the master bedroom was wonderful. Our children were little and we were young, and running up and down the several narrow flights of stairs was more like a game than a necessary physical undertaking. Later we moved into our second house, larger, with sunny rooms and cathedral ceilings. We are still there today, after 30 years, the windows framing the woods behind the house.
As we aged and our children moved out, we considered buying a vacation home at the beach, in Rehoboth or Ocean City. We never found anything we could afford that swept us off our feet, and we shelved the idea. And good thing we did, because our son got married and started a family. The problem was that he settled down in San Diego. We wanted to be a part of the life of our wonderful grandchildren, a boy and girl. My wife, who, like a cat, gets attached to places and people, would not even consider moving, and eventually the idea of a second home caught up with us one more time. So we bought a condo in downtown San Diego. ‘It will be perfect,’ we said to ourselves. ‘We’ll combine our suburban life in Columbia with the city vibe of San Diego, and we’ll spend time with our grandkids.’
And so we did. We filled the new place with furniture similar in style with what we have at home, we decorated the walls with art and family photos, we found our preferred supermarkets and department stores, and chose from among the hundreds of downtown restaurants the ones we enjoyed the most. We learned to navigate the streets and the main highways. Traffic in San Diego (and everywhere else we have been in California) is crazier than in Maryland — the highways are wider, the exits more frequent, and in spite of their reputation of being relaxed and laid back, Californians drive as if they are constantly late for very important appointments. Still, it takes less than twenty minutes to get to our son’s house, and about as much, in the opposite direction, to our favorite beach on beautiful Coronado Island. Once a month a group of film lovers in our building meet to watch old movies on a supersized TV screen in the party room. We befriended other people as well, and I found tennis partners. More and more it feels like home both in Maryland and in San Diego. I now have two iMac’s, one here and one there, and, like Marquez, I can continue my writing without interruption. Will that make me as great a writer?
In San Diego the air is always dry with temperatures in the seventies most of the year. Palm trees and cacti grow on islands of irrigated soil, next to brown patches scorched by the merciless sun. In Columbia it is hot and humid in the summer, and it snows in the winter. When we left Columbia this early spring the trees were bare, but upon our return, they overwhelmed us with moist and fresh greenery, and flowers of every color. The downtown San Diego cityscape is a mixture of high-rise condo buildings and government offices, while in Columbia we enjoy the understated layout of a planned community with small shopping centers and open spaces. And then, in San Diego, we have the ocean.
There are differences that set aside our two homes, and I enjoy them. But I don’t want to overlook the details that remind me that things are always more nuanced than they appear to be.
In our family we divide responsibilities. My wife cooks, and I happily eat what she cooks and reluctantly do the dishes. We returned from San Diego the other day, and this morning I was in front of the kitchen sink performing my duties. And there they were, the small incongruities causing me to feel I needed a little time to refocus. Like raising an old pair of binoculars to your eyes, and even through they are preset for your particular vision needs, you still adjust them again, just a trifle.
One moves the faucet handle over the kitchen sink upwards to get warm water in San Diego, and downwards over here. The switch for the garbage disposal is on the right in one place and on the left in the other. The silverware is different, as are the dishes, and the Martini glasses. My wine bottle opener in San Diego turns automatically to pull out the cork and dispose of it, whereas in Maryland there are two separate buttons– a small nuisance.
As I write about this with a bit of self-irony, I wonder why nothing is ever enough, and nothing is ever perfect. Why do we want what we don’t have? Two homes, for instance. Look at those who stay put but would love to travel, and at those who travel and complain endlessly of busy flights and faraway airports. Look at young people who dream of buying their first house, and then complain about too many responsibilities. Look at those who think of downsizing. Why are children impatient to leave their parents’ place, only to yearn for it the first time they encounter a difficulty?
Maybe no matter how hard you try and how appealing it sounds, the concept of a second ‘home’ is a misnomer. There is only one place one can really call home, and when the children leave, it is gone forever.
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