In his novel Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin writes these evocative words: “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” This may not be true for all of us, but it is, no doubt, for many of us. Our childhood homes somehow manage to stay with us, not physically, of course, but in our hearts and our complex, textured memories. And that’s we hear from Lori Ayotte. 

Lori Ayotte teaches World Literature at Sharon High School in Massachusetts.  

I always had considered “Unit” an ugly name for a street.

Growing up, I pined for prettier surroundings and a road with a more decorative name. Wealthier classmates lived on streets called “Cranberry Ridge” or “Eagle Way.” From my two-family tenement, I could walk to the projects, vacant mills, and a half-dozen Catholic churches.

My father bought that tenement to care for his parents, who lived upstairs with my aunt and a succession of parakeets.

I was an only child and an avid reader. I’d glance at the sidewalk from my window and yearn for the Lake of Shining Waters from Anne of Green Gables or the moors in Jane Eyre. The only lake I saw was the transient kind built by kids who opened fire hydrants in the street on a July afternoon; the closest thing to the moors was an abandoned parking lot.

There was beauty, though. One old bachelor kept a thriving rhododendron in his front yard. And Italia, known for her thick Neapolitan accent, shared cherries from her prolific backyard tree. In August, my Nonni picked and fried zucchini blossoms from her own harvest.

On Unit Street, homemade food meant love, and love meant family. A typical Sunday revolved around a dinner in my grandmother’s kitchen, our voices so loud that only insiders could distinguish an argument from a regular discussion. Weekday suppers were quieter. No one ate alone.

Dinners waned after my grandparents passed. I moved. My parents divorced, and the tenement was sold. Our family unit broke.

Two decades later, the house hasn’t changed. The same front door, I know, bears marks from where my last parakeet voraciously chewed the trim, and I wonder what other bits of our former lives linger there.

I also wonder what pieces of Unit Street remain with me.

I’m still an avid reader – I teach literature. When I glance out my window, I see, instead of sidewalks, woods that Anne Shirley would adore. No longer need I yearn for Jane Eyre’s moors; I’ve visited them.

Another vestige are dinners I eat with my father and aunts at a table similar to my grandmother’s. We still illustrate our love in food and decibels.

Although a home can’t be measured in data, I consider “Unit” a fitting name for the street that shaped my childhood. I marvel at the beauty of that house, my first and fundamental unit of existence.