What Makes a Home: Not Wood Frames, but Families

One group of students wrote two words that meant home -- brothers, music, junk food, friends -- on their palms. | Photo by Douglas McCulloh

I thought my job was to make them write about stucco and wood framing, about gated communities and urban apartment complexes, about bedrooms decorated with designer furniture, and kitchens where twelve people sat around one table.

You can be lonely in your own zipcode.
I want puppies. And a house. Just a house.
My mother is my home. I have lived in 8 different places in 18 years -- condos and apartments and relatives' couches. She is home. Only her.
This is a picture of my dog. Wait -- I was going to show you my dog, but this is my heater. Home is my heater.

We were going to write about stucco and wood. I had plans for this class of 75 freshmen at UC Riverside, the first time in my 24 years on campus that I'd taught this class in a sequence we call CHASS Connect, which is designed to take the same group of new students through one theme. This year: Environmentalism.

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They began here in September as young people away from whatever home had been for the first time. More firsts -- many were the first generation born here, and the first generation to go to college. My students were from everywhere -- Nebraska, Pacoima, Rialto, Oregon, Compton, Mexico, Canada, Richmond, Rancho Palos Verdes, and San Clemente, Indio, and Riverside, among other places. Their parents were born in Korea, China, Nigeria, California, Nebraska, North Carolina, Indonesia, Mexico, El Salvador, Brazil, The Philippines, Afghanistan, and Iran, among other places.

Their faces represented everything about America -- past and future. Some cried for home, and some were glad to have escaped.

In Fall, they began with a course in Political Science, taught by Dr. Farah Godrej, learning about public policy and environment, about their own ecological footprints, about how governments and philosophy influence the environment. In Winter, for an English course taught by Dr. Geoff Cohen, they read literature about the American environment, "the Howling Wilderness and the Garden of Eden." They read Thoreau and Melville, plantations and property and Walden, then the Southern California of Walter Mosley, Raymond Chandler, and Alex Espinoza.

This group recreated a Memory Match game on the board -- Dodger hats, golden buddhas and all. | Photo by Douglas McCulloh

So this Spring, I wanted them to write creatively about Home. We were going to make maps, to think about their houses from the studs to the framing, from metal of mobile homes to wrought-iron balconies of apartment buildings. We were going to think about who was in the street, the yard, the kitchen.

But I'm not going to tell you what I tried to teach them. We read some great books, we heard from Doug McCulloh (famous photographer!) about how a housing tract is constructed from the soil to the roof, and we drew some stuff on the board. But the group presentations, where the students were inventive and imaginative, where they described with passion and laughter and sorrow their ideas of home, were revelations to all of us. The joy and wonder of what we do in the classroom, if we are lucky -- elementary, high school, or college -- is what we are taught. I looked forward to every minute with them -- they said this was the class they called home about. The wonder of teaching, even after many years, was what I learned from them, and how they made me examine my own house, my home, and my family. Here is what they taught me, in two parts by which we divided Spring.

Lilian M explained why her home is not the Brazil apartment building behind her, but the friends who don't live there now but gather in other places. | Photo by Douglas McCulloh

"What Makes a Home?"

It was rarely what adults might expect. It was rarely walls or beds or stuffed animals or furniture. It was the moles and enchiladas a mother made no matter where the kitchen was. It was soccer matches on ESPN Desportiv and rooms full of family members wearing jerseys from opposing teams. It was religious statues and pictures and medals placed over doorways, on tables, held in hands and draped around throats before a daughter left for Riverside. On a Family Feud-style game show, students actually did a survey to find out which of these meant home: Food, Family, Religion, Culture, Sports, Television. (One student asked 50 strangers!) Students read essays about living in so many homes, because of divorce or economic hardship or upward mobility, that only their siblings represented home to them. Some lived in large comfortable homes, but only treasured the time spent in a car, on a beach, or anywhere with friends, who they had made family.

"My grandmother raised me. My mother was a translator in Japan. She was a total stranger. My home was my favorite cartoons and my grandmother. My mother came back to America, my grandmother left, and I slept in the same house, but it wasn't home. It was a cage."

"I have a huge crazy Filipino family, and we buy so many presents at Christmas you can't see the tree. I mean it. We throw the presents at each other. If you don't pay attention you'll get hit in the head. Home to me -- what I want -- is to have a tree and throw presents at my kids."

"We lived in a five bedroom home in Rialto, and there was a whole family in each bedroom. I wanted my own room, with the marks in the closet they make when you grow."

"We lost our house to foreclosure, and we moved across the street. I'm sad every day to drive past my old house."

Home was a pendant brought by a grandmother in a rural village in Mexico, or growing up in Los Angeles and always moving, moving, in a crowd of other people on a bus, a subway or a sidewalk. Home was a piano. Home was so often a mother who listened, who put a plate of food in front of someone, who was so loved that the student reading about her cried in front of us all.

Family Feud:  Survey said home was family, religion, culture and food. | Photo by Douglas McCulloh

And that was the beginning of what we learned -- my plans evaporated and I told them that it wasn't necessarily about stucco or grass. It was about stories. That to tell a story which left 75 other people laughing, or tearful, or stunned, may be the one of the most vital talents to work, no matter what work or field you plan. A doctor or nurse is telling the story of a disease or injury, and how someone will survive, or not. A lawyer is telling the story of a crime, or defense, to a roomful of strangers. A social worker or teacher or counselor is telling stories, as is an advertising manager or economist or biologist or salesperson. Making strangers listen to you is essential.

This is how we began -- I will tell you the story of my home. It is about growing up in Compton, but having St. Jude everywhere, and finally asking a mother why. "She said she grew up very poor in Mexico, and St. Jude was who she prayed to for a better life. St. Jude is for desperate or difficult cases. I feel like I can only pray there -- at home."

"My house and yard are full of spiders, lizards, and cobwebs. There are like, five outbuildings. My house is really old. Everything breaks. But the heater never broke. It was just me and my dad. When I was little, he made me take a bath, and it was cold, and I would stand in front of the heater, and I could smell my father in the kitchen cooking breakfast. That was home."

The heater was on the screen, absolutely ordinary and metal. But the story was something we won't forget.

Next in this series about Home: Desire, Envy, and Home

Susan Straight's novel "Take One Candle Light a Room" will be released in paperback in March. Her novel "Highwire Moon" is about a California-born daughter searching for her Mexican-born mother. Doug McCulloh's photographs have been exhibited across the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, and China. His fourth book "Dream Street" chronicles the builders, workers, and homebuyers of a subdivision in Southern California. Read more of their stories here.

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.


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:D Professor Straight is absolutely amazing. I always looked forward to her class


What a great story. Reading it made me think you might be interested in one of our professor's recent book on the history of home. http://www.csudhnews.com/2012/04/jerry-moore-home/ -- Best, Amy at CSUDH