Looking for Home

How to answer when your elderly father asks, “Where do you live now?”

“Where do you live?” he asked. It was an important issue for my father—he asked me this same question every time we talked. “Where do you live now?” He knew I no longer lived with him and my mother, but he couldn’t seem to imagine me anywhere else.

I ran through the options in my head, trying to think of the best way to answer that might make him understand and remember. A street name was too specific. “I live in a small bungalow in south Minneapolis,” I replied.

He had been to my house many times since my husband and I bought it roughly two years before. Circulation problems and Alzheimer’s had turned my father into a shuffler, so he would hold my hand to negotiate the three steps from the walkway to our front door. Every time, he’d walk through the door onto our three-season porch and say, “I think I’ve been here before.” Then he’d stop, as if distracted by the surroundings, and take in the expanse of the small porch. I would stand at his side, trying to understand what his brain was telling him as I waited for him to orient himself. The bewilderment on his face turned into what I couldn’t call recognition, but rather, perhaps, comfort. Then he’d say, “Yep, I’ve been here before.”

“Yes, Dad, you’re right. You have,” I would say, smiling and perhaps allowing myself to feel happy for a few seconds as I pretended he really did remember. But as soon as he left, the memory of this home went with him, leaving me bereft as I watched my father slip away.

• • •

When we talked next, my father asked again, “Where do you live?” This time, I changed my tactic. I said, “I live in Minneapolis, by the Mississippi River.” The river is an enduring Minnesota landmark, but a landmark in my father’s life, as well. Many years earlier, after World War II displaced him, first, from his home in Yugoslavia and, then, from Germany, he crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a troop carrier to immigrate to the United States; the Mississippi made a path through the city where he first lived in this country: St. Paul. From his neighborhood in Dayton’s Bluff, on St. Paul’s east side, my father could look southwest, down the hill, and see the ribbon of the river—the iconic waterway of this new American home—winding its way past downtown.

The river’s headwaters are in the northwestern part of our state, as well—in Itasca State Park, where we took family camping trips. My father captured scenes of these trips with a home movie camera, filming his four young children running in and out of the water and splashing one another while our docile mother looked on. When I said Mississippi to my father, I hoped it would make him think of his history with the river, and with us.

• • •

Where do you live?” he asked again, even though I had just told him ten minutes earlier. I tried a different reference point: Minnehaha Falls Regional Park, where we’d spent family reunions with German relatives, the adults cooking bratwurst on the grill and drinking beer while we kids played on the nearby metal playground equipment. We’d peek over the stone wall at the Minnehaha Falls, wondering at the power of water and gravity.

The park wasn’t far from our first home in suburban Eagan, so we would go there other times, as well. My siblings and I played in the creek bed at the bottom of the falls, where the rushing water dissipated to a slow-moving creek feeding the mighty Mississippi. Watching nervously from the banks, my father cautioned us to be careful in the water.

• • •

“Where do you live?” my father wanted to know another time. He needed to place me in the world, to see where I fit and how that related to him. This time, I answered in terms of distance. “I live about fifteen miles from here, in south Minneapolis, near Highway 55.” Before Eagan turned into the expansive suburb it is today, one of the fastest ways to get to Minneapolis was by Highway 55, or Hiawatha Avenue.

We often took that route from my first home, a 1950s three-bedroom rambler, which my parents bought shortly after they were married in 1961. The house at 1069 McKee Street was in a small four-block development, each parallel block named after the developer and his family: Kenneth, Beatrice, McKee, and Keefe. The houses were all the same style, just different colors: forest green, melon, dark blue, sky blue, olive, white, brown.

The family quickly grew to fill the rooms: Heidi, then Karin, John, and finally me—four kids in four-and-a-half years. My father added on a family room and built a garage. Home was a nest from which we wandered untethered—riding bikes up and down the block; climbing the elm, pine, and apple trees in the yard; inventing games; and spending hours playing outside. Idyllic in so many ways. Looking back, I marvel at the freedom we had, but the bedrock of home was enough to draw us back time and again.

• • •

The place that will always be home to me is the split-level house in the newer, less developed part of our suburb, where we moved in 1977, when I was nine years old. It was thrilling to be in this larger home: each of us kids had our own bedroom; we had a big yard landscaped by Bachman’s nursery—something my father never would have fussed with or paid for; and beyond our property were prairies and ponds with plenty of places to explore. The streets were all named some variation of Greenleaf Drive—East, South, West, and North—except ours, which was the stolid Acorn Street.

Most of my childhood memories take place at that home on Acorn. It was where I learned to cook with my dad, where I watched him carefully plant and harvest his vegetable garden, where I learned to mow around the curvy flowerbeds, where we celebrated holidays and birthdays and ate dinner together nearly every day. It was the place where my father’s American dream came true—where he reaped the benefits of all his hard work—and where he lived out the rest of his life.

Long after my siblings and I had grown up and left home and had families of our own, my father would look around the house and ask my mom, “Where is everybody?” as if he expected all of his children to walk through the front door. It was in the very early stages of his Alzheimer’s, and one of the first clues that his grasp on reality was askew. Ever the watchful parent, he wouldn’t want to lock the door for the night, thinking one of us would still be coming home.

But toward the end, he often didn’t think he belonged there, either. In the quiet of the evening, after my parents had eaten supper or were getting ready to watch the ten o’clock news, he would say to my mother, “When are we going to go?”

“Where do you want to go?” she’d ask.

“Home!” he’d respond in exasperation, as if she should have known.

My mom was always stumped by this. “Where is home?” she would ask him. He didn’t know, but he was certain he wasn’t there.

• • •

My father’s legs grew weaker over time, and eventually, he used a wheelchair for longer outings. Strolling through my parents’ neighborhood one evening and pushing my dad in his chair, I commented on points of interest along the way: the lilies in bloom in a neighbor’s yard, the warm breeze of summer, or how much the trees had grown since our move to the neighborhood decades earlier. The area still had the quiet feel of a rural landscape. My father acknowledged everything I said with a simple, “Yes, I guess so.”

When I rounded the bend of their short block to return him home, my father pointed to his house on Acorn Street—the house where he’d lived for over thirty years—and said, “I used to live there.”

“You did?” I said, both alarmed and curious about his state of mind. “Where do you live now?”

“Oh, around,” he said. “Here and there.”

My spirits sank. How heartbreaking to be unable to place yourself in your past or even your present, not to know where you’ve been or where you’re going. Logically, I knew that Alzheimer’s was responsible for robbing my father of his sense of place, but emotionally, I couldn’t make sense of it.

• • •

My father’s “homeland” was an ocean away. He was born in a village in northern Yugoslavia. His German ancestors had moved there generations earlier, in search of a better livelihood. With the onset of World War II, tensions increased between ethnic Germans—known as Danube Swabians—and Yugoslavs, and many in the German community were forced out. At fourteen, my father moved on his own from Yugoslavia to Munich to become a baker’s apprentice during the war. I know a few of the places where he lived in Munich: a room above the bakery on Tulbeckstrasse, where he first worked; then a room in the Ledigenheim, a boarding house for men; and finally, a refugee camp in Bremen.

Perhaps it was this early isolation from family that affected how he thought of home. My father was eager for a new start in a new land—a place that hadn’t been wrecked by war. When he first came to the United States in 1952, my father joined family in east St. Paul. His Uncle Fritz had brought his wife and children there and found sponsors for my father, my two aunts, and my grandmother. My father was the first from his immediate family to come.

The house where my father lived with multiple relatives—up to twenty at one point—was an ordinary house in an ordinary American city. It was small, and it was crowded, but it was filled with enthusiasm and excitement. The household collectively cheered as someone got a new job, someone else arrived from Europe, or someone got engaged. These new immigrants were making their home together—finding work, organizing soccer games, drinking beer, and living—and it was a place of unending possibility. There, at last, my father found safety and joy.

All those years later, when he’d tell my mother he wanted to go home, she’d go over the places they had lived. When she finally asked about the St. Paul house, that’s where he wanted to go. That was home.

• • •

In the years before he died, my father couldn’t be left home alone, and I spent an increasing amount of time with him. One warm summer afternoon, as we sat peaceably on the deck, enjoying the trilling of birds and the shade from now full-grown trees, he told me again, “I used to live here.”

“You did?” I said. Time had muted the sting of it. “So did I.” After a second, I added, “I liked living here.”

We looked around, taking in the bucolic scene—the lush lawn, my mother’s roses in bloom, the sound of elm leaves fluttering in the wind, the small meadow beyond the fence. 

“Yeah, me too,” he said.

About the Author

Brenda van Dyck

Brenda van Dyck is a writer and editor in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in various anthologies and journals, including Voices of Alzheimer'sOpen to Interpretation: Intimate Landscape; Confluence: The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies; and Minnesota Literature.

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