Since becoming a California resident in 1963 and an American citizen in 1974, I’ve grappled with what the word home means to me. Over the years, I’ve returned to Canada, my birth country, many times and have wondered what it’s like for people who always have lived near their family and their beginnings, who haven’t adopted another country or area as I have. How do they measure their growth if they never have the distance of time and miles between them and their families—their roots—that accentuate such changes?
When we evolve gradually over the years and we participate in these changes regularly, along with the family and friends we grew up with, the transformation enters us like food, nourishing imperceptibly, slowly. But for those whose visits to their original home are infrequent, scattered over long periods of time, letters, and long-distance phone calls, the meals resemble feasts, and they gorge themselves, not wanting to miss anything.
For me, the situation became complicated because what once had been our family home in Calgary no longer existed, and any subsequent residences also had dissolved. Thus, my trips “home” seemed doomed from the start because those places were no longer recognizable, and I had to adapt to wherever my family now resided. Therefore, I haven’t had regular access to the physical changes of the original structures themselves or to the people who inhabited them. So it’s a jolt when I do visit and there is much catching up to do.
But it isn’t just the places and people that have changed without me having constant access to them. Even Calgary, the city where I grew up, has undergone major changes, no longer the Cowtown I remembered from when I left in 1963. The city has transformed itself from an old-fashioned town with familiar landmarks, sandstone buildings of no more than a few stories, to a modern city. Glittering skyscrapers rise out of the downtown area like oil wells on the prairies—oddly out of place and surrealistic looking, glass-enclosed walls reflecting the bright Alberta sun, windows resembling hundreds of sightless eyes. The office buildings where I’d once worked—the Petroleum Building on 9th Avenue and others—seemed towering then. Now they’re dwarfed and invisible next to the newer ones, and some have been destroyed entirely. These major alterations are jolting and surrealistic. Each time I return, I have another huge modification to adjust to.
How, then, can I orient myself if I don’t have familiar landmarks to guide me? I’ve concluded it isn’t the places where I’ve lived that give me roots as a Canadian. I’m an expression of the landscape I was raised in, though I’ve now lived in California longer than I’ve lived in Canada. I’ve carried with me the prairie sky I grew up under, the distant Rockies helping to define it. The prairie sky’s vastness—a canvas that can hold hulking thunderclouds in one corner, hail in another, and shafts of sun in still another—contributes to whom I am today.
At the farm where we lived for a part of my childhood in Alberta’s flat lands, I recall lying in a wheat field, watching the cumulus clouds suggest endless images and shapes, entertained for hours. I merged with that sky and those images, less focused on the immediate surroundings. The sky pulled me out of myself, providing endless opportunities to speculate. No boundaries existed there, except for the horizon, no man-made obstacles to bump into or impede my vision, other than an occasional plane.
The geographical area where we grew up provides a foundation for all of us, whether we have spent those early years in a village, a town, or a city. The land, the place we inhabited as children, penetrates our pores and resides in our bones. While we may think we can leave behind whatever residue these early experiences have implanted in us, we can’t. Comprised of images that shape us from within and without, we are expressions of our past and the places where we’ve lived.