Thursday, March 26, 2015

Finding Home: Other Voices

Today I'm pleased to share the work of author, Tiffani Burnett-Velez. Maybe Pliny the Elder had it right all along!
My mother used to hang an antique wooden, heart-shaped, wreath in the kitchen in all four houses we lived in while I was growing up. It had the words, “Home is Where the Heart is” hanging from another piece of circular wood and a tattered strip of twine in the center. I remember thinking that the saying was not true, because childhood is not always an easy thing, and home was just bricks and wood. Home was not always where my heart was growing up, though my mother and stepfather loved me and provided well for my physical needs. My biological father was in the military, and sometimes I did not see him for two years at a time. This hole always left my heart a bit wanting. My heart, it seemed, was in more places than one. So, how does one find home when affections are split into several pieces?

I went through childhood, high school, and college kind of feeling out of place, feeling like I was not really part of anyone’s home or culture. And then I met the man who would become my husband. I remember the day clearly. I had returned home to Pennsylvania (a state I had only lived in for one year and had not yet embraced) from my freshman year of college in Georgia, and my mother immediately insisted that I attend church with her. I refused at first. This was the last thing I wanted to do on a weekday evening at age 19, but my mother was strangely persistent.

“You might meet the boy you’re going to marry there,” she said, and I chided her for talking like a character in a Jane Austen novel.

“If I’m lucky,” I said, “I won’t meet anyone.”

But, sure enough, the first human I saw walking down the aisle (of the world’s most incredibly boring church) was a handsome, quiet Puerto Rican all dressed up in a suit and tie. I remember thinking his attire was far too hot for a warm May evening in southeastern Pennsylvania, only minutes from the Mason-Dixon Line. I told my mother, “He’s too shiny,” too clean and well put together. As a girl who had grown up on the edge of the southern California surf in Ventura County, I didn’t take well to young men who looked like lawyers long before they had even graduated college. But there was something about this one, and over the months, we got to know each other even though he already had a girlfriend.

The girlfriend was a peculiarity to me, because she never had anything intelligent to say, and the boy and I could spend hours talking about things she’d never heard of, and before long, the girlfriend left town and ran away with a high school dropout to North Carolina. It was only a matter of weeks before the boy (Leonardo) and I started dating. We quickly formed a bond tighter than any I had ever known.

Leonardo is an only child, and his parents moved from Puerto Rico to the United States in the late 1960’s. Though U.S. citizens, they very much had an immigrant experience, and Leonardo had a “first generation” experience that many children of immigrants do. Many times he felt alone in his American life. Meeting me, a girl from California who had been raised in a neighborhood that was overwhelmingly Hispanic, made us a perfect match. I spoke fluent Spanish, though a different dialect than his, and when I heard him speaking to his parents’, Leonardo’s language offered me a sense of grounding and familiarity in a world that was largely Pennsylvania Dutch (German).

We shared interests and political views. Our artistic talents were similar; he was a musician enrolled in a prestigious Music Education program, and I was an aspiring writer and English Literature major. Within two and a half years of that first meeting, we were married. Our parents were mostly furious with the news of our engagement, urging us to finish college first and warning us that “life was hard and young marriages like this often don’t last”. But we ignored them all, good intentions and all. Nothing can quite supersede the happiness of two people who love each other and want nothing more than to spend a lifetime together.

Our first home was a sad looking one bedroom apartment with a kitchen sink that stank of sulfur and rotten eggs, and the bathtub was full of centipedes and spiders, but we were happy, because we were together. Our grocery budget was $10 a week, and we worked hard for that even. We didn’t have cable, we never went out to eat, and we didn’t have new cars, but it was one of the happiest and freest times of our lives. The sufferings of newlywed poverty were not a disappointment to us, as we saw ourselves together forever and with plenty of time to build up a home that would not look like a Soviet cinder-block high-rise and reek of the burnt curry from the neighbor who shared our paper-thin apartment walls. Our plans would be immediately tested when I became suddenly and gravely ill.

Within seven months of marriage, I became completely paralyzed with a rare neurological disease called Guillain-Barre Syndrome, compounded by an additional neuromuscular disease called Myasthenia Gravis. My respiratory system completely shut down and I was unable to breathe on my own. The entire disintegration of my nervous system took only three weeks. I was pregnant with our first child, and doctors were not certain that either of us would survive. Leonardo and I would have to lean heavily on our shared faith and the family we had created for one another. Suddenly, the old apartment no longer mattered, only home did and that definition had already moved beyond bricks and wood. 

I obviously survived GBS, and the ensuing weeks and months of recovery, as did our son. He turned 18 last September and was recently accepted to the Boston Conservatory to study Music Composition. He is a fair proportion of his father and I – half music/half writing. Over the years, we had three more children, each of them adding to the bond we began on that hot May evening in 1993. We have owned three homes, and lived in countless apartments (some better than others), but we are settled wherever we go, because home really is where the heart is, the one we formed into one connected unit years ago.

For many, “home” is a delicate issue, even a painful one. For me, it was always mysterious. What did it mean? Where does one actually find it? It is a feeling, a safety net, a place where one can be his or herself without judgement. I hope Leonardo and I have created this for our children and for our friends and extended family who spend time with us, because home really is a state of mind, an offering of love from one person to another.
Tiffani has been a freelance writer since 1996. Her nonfiction work has appeared in magazines in the US and Europe. Her first novel, Budapest, was featured at the NY Book Festival. Her WWII era novella, A Berlin Story, is an Amazon#1 bestseller in its category, and her contemporary women's fiction novel, All This Time, was released by Booktrope in March 2015. You can read more from Tiffani at her blog, This Writer's Life.  

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Working Girl said...

What an amazing story! Thanks for sharing this, Tiffani.

Unknown said...

I love this wonderful story! Thanks, Tiffani.

Tiffani Burnett-Velez said...

Thank you, Eleanor :)