Notes on home

By Rose Larsen

“Did you know that my grandparents build this house with their bare hands?” I hear myself say, a distinct note of pride inflecting my voice. I’m flicking through photos, pointing out the octagonal shape and unique fixtures. There’s pride, yes, and a sense of novelty. There’s a quaintness to the anachronism of building four walls and a ceiling in a world where we are so far removed from the act of taking up a brick and beginning.

The octagonal straw-bale house in the Adelaide foothills is my family’s legacy. For as long as I can remember, we’ve entertained a proverbial open-door policy: the building blocks of a community defined not by physical proximity or cultural similarity but something far less limiting. Community is contained in the house’s foundations. In every cranny love bursts.

A newcomer wouldn’t be blamed for feeling trepidatious. Dry vegetation, red earth and dust dominate the landscape. The final stretch of driveway is steep. Cresting the hill, the two-columned structure looms, its orange-red hue mimicking the baked earth. 

I have watched this house breathe and grow. I’ve witnessed arguments unfold, toasts made and laughter ring out through the hills. As I’ve passed through childhood, so has this home emerged from infancy. Something of ourselves is contained in its walls. Physically imposing as it may be, this place has taken root in my memory as a sanctuary-in-flux – a place where I will always be welcome, where lazy thinking is never tolerated and I’m pushed to work harder and be kinder. I feel a part of my family’s essence in the earth beneath my feet.

As the years pass, the magnitude of their dream becomes clearer to me. In a world where home ownership is a pipedream, my grandparents safeguarded our future. They made sure of something in an uncertain world. They wanted us to know that we’d always have a place to go, a place to exist, a place where we were welcome. They created a site of gathering, of birthdays and Christmases, and a place where we remember and celebrate the lives of those lost who we miss every day. It’s the first place we turn when faced with emotion turmoil. It’s a place where the doors are always open to us when we need them.

Loss has plagued the last few years with a ferocity I never knew possible. Family bonds are, paradoxically, both unbreakable and fragile. Like tensile rope relies on the unwavering steadiness of its anchoring points, so do we need each other or our structural integrity threatens to collapse altogether. Death continues to challenge our sense of wholeness. We lost fathers, sons, best friends, confidantes and protectors. 

Grieving is drawn-out, public, and shared. Despair is private. It threatens our connection to the present and it looms over our familial bonds. Absence makes its presence known in every meal, reminiscence and televised football match. It echoes in laughter, sighs and music. I feel it as the car’s engine struggles up that last steep stretch of driveway. I see it in the red earth. In every cranny absence bursts. This is our reality now.

I was born into a family that gives, selfless and tirelessly, to everyone around them. I’ve known unconditional love and care: for me, for friends and for strangers. I’ve always been taught by example that hard work and selflessness can lead to a better world for everyone. Despite the hardships, my grandparents have never lost sight of this core belief. They’ve continued to live according to their values with an unwavering strength of character I find both inconceivable and aspirational. Incredibly, against all odds, I am beginning to see how we might settle into the absence that loss has left us with. How we might sit with it, live with it, and one day accept it. The house, built on foundations of love, community, and family, doesn’t collapse: steadfastly it goes on, a symbol of the strength of its legacy.

I laugh off platitudes that tell me home is where the heart is — I still eschew sentimentality for a more tangible understanding of physical belonging, an inherited pragmatism that allows me to feel, in some respects, free. But now I feel that there’s a fundamental truth at the core of the cliche. Loss has left an indelible mark on this place we call home and in doing so has cemented our bond to it.

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