Welcome Home by Donalyn Miller

We moved into our new house the first week of June, but I haven’t spent much time here. Educators attend a lot of professional development during the summer months and I have traveled from conference to conference–speaking with colleagues around the country about fostering children’s reading lives. Returning home for a day or two here and there—I dive back into the ongoing unpacking efforts. I feel guilty about how much work Don and Sarah have done without me.

We’ve set up our house in pragmatic waves. We assembled our beds and put our dishes in the cabinets. We decided on spots for water bowls and pet food. We hooked up our televisions and wi-fi. We scouted for a new grocery store. We can function now. We can cook meals and take showers. We can wash clothes and watch a movie.

But this place still doesn’t feel like home.

We feel as if we are in a nice vacation rental—like the real owners might show up at any moment and ask for the keys. We know it will take time. We need a year of holidays and birthdays. We need to overcome sadness and celebrate joys. We need to make some memories here. We are still in love with our old house and this house is a stranger.

While Don is willing to unpack pots and pans and hook up the washer while I am out of town, he is reluctant to put any personal touches on the house without me. He doesn’t have strong opinions about where we hang our paintings or display my mother’s music boxes, but he knows I care. Each time I come home, we hang another painting or adorn another table top. We empty another box and wait for the tipping point—the moment when this house begins to feel like our house.

I haven’t made time to unpack my office. Knowing that I would be traveling all summer, I packed two boxes of “priority office supplies” and I ‘ve been working out of them. I go into my office from time to time—to grab a power cord or fish for a pen. I can’t unpack my office right now because we don’t have a place for all of our books. My office has become a book warehouse. A problem I can’t solve right now. I keep the door closed and avoid it as much as possible.

books are in here

We left behind some things when we moved, including our built-in bookshelves. Don’s Man Cave, my office, our living room—all lined with floor to ceiling bookshelves. We knew our new house didn’t have enough bookcases before we bought it, but we convinced ourselves it was something we could fix. We forgot how many years (and how much money) it took us to buy, install, and fill all of those shelves.

While we gave away hundreds of books before we moved, we still moved 45 boxes of books into our new house. Sarah moved boxes of books, too, but she refuses to tell me how many, “My books are not part of your story, Mom.” We don’t have any place for these books and we cannot afford to install built-ins all at once. It took us years at the old place. We are in limbo.

Book Boxes

Talking with Don one day about my failure to bond with our new house, he shook his head and said, “This house will never feel like our house until we have our books unpacked. It’s impossible. Remember how we felt when we started packing our books at the old house? We didn’t feel like we belonged there anymore.”

“It seems selfish to spend time unpacking books when we still have boxes piled in the garage. Besides, we don’t have places for them!” I said.

“We have those two built-in bookcases around the fire place in the living room. It’s not enough, but it’s a place to start. Why don’t you spend the day filling those? You’ll feel better when you do,” he said.

I could write forever about the joy of marrying another reader. Best. Decision. Ever.

I spent a glorious afternoon filling those bookcases. Recognizing that we didn’t have enough room for many books forced me to be selective. It was like a Nerdy Book Club version of the Desert Island game. If you only had two bookcases, what would go on it?

I began hunting for our favorites. The books that shaped the way we talk to each other. The books we built a family with. I opened twelve boxes looking for Harry Potter, snagging The Hobbit, The Wind in the Willows, and Watership Down along the way. I rediscovered our two copies of The Princess Bride—the one Don gave me when we were dating and the illustrated edition he gave me a few years ago. 22 years of “As you wish” bookending our marriage.

Next on the shelves—Barnyard Dance, Dinosaur Bob and the Family Lazardo, Are You My Mother?, Stellaluna, A Bad Case of Stripes—books we read with our girls when they could still sit on our laps. I can hear their baby girl giggles in my head, “Read it again, Mommy!” I found our copies of Mercy Watson, which Emma, our oldest granddaughter and I read last year. I ceremoniously placed our signed copy of Yard Sale on the shelf. Thank you, Lauren, for sending us the right book at the right time.

First Bookshelf

When I slipped The Knife of Never Letting Go onto our shelves, Don and I whispered, “Manchee,” and shared a bittersweet smile. Yes this is what home feels like. We are readers who built a family together. It only makes sense that we need our books to build a new home. For now, our old memories—housed inside our old books—will sustain us.

Emma helped me unpack two more boxes of books and put them on her red bookcase–one of the few free standing bookcases we moved. I came across a copy of I Will Take a Nap!, the latest Elephant and Piggie book. It came out the week we moved and I packed it without reading it. Sitting on the floor in our spare bedroom, Emma and I read the book, taking turns reading Gerald and Piggie’s parts (I was Piggie this time.). When we finished the book, Emma put it on her bookshelf, and I thought–this is how it begins. This is how you build a home. One memory at a time.

Last night, we celebrated my mom’s and my shared birthday. Our entire family came over to swim in the pool and eat fajitas. It was too hot to eat outside, so we sat in the living room and had a carpet picnic. We have a big family, and we could never invite everyone over to our old house at the same time. We didn’t have enough room. Looking around at four generations of family chatting and enjoying each other’s company, I realized that we could make some memories at our new house that we couldn’t make at our old place.

My mom complimented me on how much we’ve done on the house, “These bookcases look good, Doe. I can tell you’re settling in.”

Today, Don and I are going to IKEA to buy some bookcases. They may not be the built-in bookcases of our dreams, but this house will never feel like ours while half our hearts are trapped in boxes. In the years ahead, we will buy new books and make new memories—settling them into comfortable slots alongside our old books and old memories. This is how Don and I have built a life together—with our children and our bookshelves.

And with each book and each memory—we will turn this place into a home.

Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp) and the Best Practices Roots (#bproots) chat with Teri Lesesne. Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.