Thoughts in the Heartland – Dulce Domum

Reading bestows many gems. One occurs when literature echos life, deliciously reassuring us as it gives words to our formless feelings when we have none, or few. So it was a few weeks ago as I turned to chapter five of The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Graham’s story of Rat and Mole, Toad and Badger and Otter.

“Dulce Domum,” I read out loud. “That’s Latin.”

“What does it mean?” asked Sam, perched on the top bunk. “Ask Siri, Mom.”

I found the meaning of the phrase in the effortless instantaneousness so common in our culture.

“Sweetly at home,” I said. “Dulce Domum is the chapter,” I repeated to Paul, who’d returned from his chore of dumping dirty clothes down the laundry chute.

“Sweetly at Home,’ Mom,” insisted Sam. “Say what it means.”

So we listened as Rat and Mole journeyed home in the late autumn twilight after a day’s outing, peeking shyly and curiously into the cozy windows of village cottages. The inviting glow of tea-time togetherness shone in the faces of the unconsciously observed villagers, and the friends’ longings for their own respite at Rat’s warm River Bank home reflected in the glass. When they left the village for the last part of their trek, Mole unexpectedly caught the scent of his own long-ago home, Mole End, his little dwelling that he’d left behind on the day he’d first met and taken up with Rat. He was overcome with the familiarity of the reminder, the promise of his own special home that he’d left. But Rat couldn’t hear Mole’s cries to stop, and so he kept going. Mole, loyal to the last, and yet heartbroken by the unexpected summons, turned away from the scent and stumbled along until Rat realized something was deeply bothering his friend.

At this point my internal radar was high a-quiver. In March, we finally sold our home after a year and a half of it being on the market. After such a long wait, Jon and I were both greatly relieved and also abruptly startled that this big event, so long in coming, was actually going to happen. By the time I read the chapter to the kids, we were less than two weeks from our own move. Rooms were already foreign, with empty spaces where sold furniture had once comfortably filled, with stacked and labeled boxes accumulating against walls, and familiar and beloved items starting to disappear inside of them. Our little home, so dear and familiar, would soon not be home. Its familiar corners and walls, so long a reassuring bastion for our family, would no longer be home. This poignancy of home, and of leaving home, was palpable.

Ours is the first home my children have known. It has witnessed countless firsts for us, from first house to Jon and I, to first baby, to first steps and first words, first ice-cream eating and block-building. First stories. First get-togethers of friends and acquaintances, first recipe experiments, first front-porch-sittings.

It is also a home of lasts. As we have welcomed New Year’s, we have toasted the passing of the old. We have seen our babies pass from infancy to growth, the curves of their crawling legs down the hallway slimming to toddling ones, then to running ones. While some events, like our last Christmas Open House, are dates I can remember, countless mundane ones I cannot. The last time I twirled the spice rack in the cupboard, looking for oregano. The last time I yelled downstairs for the kids to turn down the music and to pick up their blocks. The last time my husband and I rocked on the front porch in a still twilight. The firsts are gone, and the lasts are, too.

So when Rat asked Mole what was wrong, I found my voice shaking and broken. “I went away and forgot all about it,” sobbed Mole. “We might have just gone and had one look at it, Rattyonly one lookit was close bybut you wouldn’t turn back, Ratty, you wouldn’t turn back!” In missing his home, Mole realized how Time, not just Rat, would not turn back for him.

And I realized the same. That is why I grieve, for the time that I can no longer pretend will be indefinite. Others will open doors, turn on lights, and make memories in this house that has been our home. We will make new memories in a new home. And that is good. But I will be sad today for what, for such a sweet time, has been our Dulce Domum, our sweetly at home.