The Shifting Meaning of Home in the Era of a Pandemic

Laura Redburn

How the pandemic changed one novelist’s idea of home.

Summer 2019. My husband and I move from our family-sized home in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, to a much smaller townhouse in downtown Chattanooga. Our youngest son is leaving for college, and we’ve decided it’s time to downsize. Door to door, it’s a 6.4-mile move, but the landscapes and lifestyles are so different that we feel as if we’ve swapped countries: Our sprawling front yard bordered by wisteria-draped pines has become a concrete stoop with a single baby redbud tree. Instead of just one restaurant, we now have 20 within five blocks of us, plus four microbreweries, six coffee shops, an infrared-sauna studio, an ax-throwing gym, an Ayurvedic tea shop, and—my favorite—a dog park/pet spa/beer garden, Play Wash Pint.

I love this part of the city, the energetic beat and casual vibe. But there’s a drawback: Chattanooga Fire Station Number 1 is a block from our house. Five enormous glass-fronted bays housing five engines. We’ll never sleep through the night again, I say to my husband the day we move in. How astonished I am, our first morning, to wake not to sirens but to “Scotland the Brave.” Bagpipes? I stumble onto the third-level deck in my pajamas, looking past the pile of empty boxes behind the office-furniture store, trying to locate the source of the music. I assume it’s coming from the Church on Main two blocks away.

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But the bagpipes continue for weeks. Peppy Highlands marches in the mornings, hymn-like dirges in the evenings, until one day I’m walking the dog and hear the low drone and plaintive notes of “Amazing Grace” inside the fire station. And there he is, my piper: a fireman in uniform, standing in the shadows just inside one of the engine bays, windbag tucked beneath his arm and a triad of pipes rising above his shoulder.

“I’ve heard he plays ‘Amazing Grace’ every time a first-responder call results in a death,” a friend tells me. I don’t know if that’s true. But if I wasn’t sold on our new home before, the idea of a bagpiping fireman honoring the dead clinches the deal.

Fall, a mild winter. We sit on our stoop and strike up conversations with passersby. Our neighbors invite us to their Shabbat meal. Another neighbor, a divinity-school dropout, brings over a bottle of tequila and holds forth on Saint Augustine till midnight. Two couples in our row have baby boys, both born around Thanksgiving. We peer into car seats and strollers to see their tiny scrunched faces and flailing mittened hands.

We live less isolated lives. The neighborhood becomes our backyard. Gradually, my definition of home begins to change. The word comes from the same root as homo sapiens; home has place and people embedded in its etymology. In the 1300s, the word homely meant, simply, “of or belonging to the home or household.” It connoted comfort, ease, and simplicity. Then Shakespeare used “homely” to describe a person, not in a flattering way—“hath homelie age th’alluring beauty tooke / from my poore cheeke?”—and over time, especially in America, “homely” became pejorative: unlovely, plain, lacking appeal.

Spring 2020. COVID-19 begins to make its murderous rounds, saturating the planet in swelling red dots, and the original sense of homeliness— comfort, ease—gives way to its pejorative cousin. Gathering places become literally unlovely, unloved.

Schools shutter. The tattoo parlor closes. The sauna place, the juice place, the improv place, the escape room, all closed till further notice. We walk our dogs along empty streets beneath cherry blossoms, the crisp March breeze scattering petals in a way that used to look festive. Forlorn confetti. The gingko leaves come out, the dogwoods lay tiny white plates atop branches, while beneath them we cut wide swaths around one another and quicken our steps.

We hunker down, we mask up. We trim our own bangs and bake our own bread. We cry watching astronauts Bob and Doug vault into space, our beautiful, desperate planet fragile as a robin’s egg beneath. I feel certain the fireman is playing “Amazing Grace” more often.

“Home” becomes a place of confinement. It loses the people part of its etymological equation.

My parents call from Tucson, the town where I grew up. They’ve lived in the same house for almost 50 years. Can you come home for a visit? How long a drive is it? On FaceTime I see them sitting beside the backyard pool of my childhood home, and such a surge of yearning hits me that I have to look away. The cicadas and mourning doves, ecstatic blue of the sky—I haven’t lived in Tucson since I was 18 and somehow it’s the home I long for.

If it’s true I can’t visit Tucson, it’s also true that I can preserve it in my memory. My mother texts pictures of my nieces and nephew in their masks, standing six feet away from my parents; she texts a picture of a mesquite tree the neighborhood decorated with handmade ornaments commemorating local COVID-19 victims. I delete the photos. I want to keep my Tucson untarnished: hikes with high school friends in Sabino Canyon, the sun laid out on the flat rocks at Seven Falls; sweaty dancing bodies at the Wildcat House; the church potlucks, Fourth of July picnics. My brother’s wedding reception at Tanque Verde Ranch, where a sudden monsoon sent table napkins soaring like gulls and we all crowded beneath dripping twinkle-lit pavilions and ate the sagging wedding cake—the bride’s mother in her silk suit out there in the rain, Lear-like, defying the storm to rescue wedding gifts from soaking ruin.

In late June my dad sends pictures of the massive plumes of smoke above the Catalina Mountains from the Bighorn fire raging on Mount Lemmon. I close my eyes and think of the time-share cabin my parents used to take us to up there: the hikes to Rose Canyon Lake, the rope swing my father hung above the slick, pine-needly forest floor.

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August 2020. It’s been weeks since I’ve heard the bagpipes. I’d like to think it’s because there are fewer cars on the road, fewer accidents, fewer deaths. I’d like to think it’s an indication that our hospitalization rate might be—finally, mercifully—dwindling.

Next month I’m supposed to fly to Phoenix. I plan to hike the Grand Canyon, rim-to-rim, with my little brother and his wife. It will be the first time I’ve ever been to the Grand Canyon, and the first time I will have visited Arizona in nearly two years.

For now, here in Chattanooga, we’re recalibrating. Learning to live inside a changed world. We’re blinking in the sunlight, crepe myrtles blooming scandalously in red and magenta and hot pink. We’re adjusting to offices with half the furniture removed, gyms with cordoned-off treadmills and temperature-check stations, doctors’ appointments with check-in tables set up outside. Our restaurants have moved chairs and tables out onto the sidewalks. How European, we say. How like the French. We sit down and remove our masks, order drinks, wave to friends.

We try to make the best of things. We long to feel at home.