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Loaded words: ‘Going home’

Times Staff Writer

Driving to work at Happy Trails cafe in Pasadena, Jamie Olsen grabs her cellphone from the passenger seat and auto-dials “home.” Five years on her own in Los Angeles, and she still calls her childhood house “home.”

When the 23-year-old hears the message, it feels like a slap. Her name -- a fixture for years -- has been deleted from the greeting.

Somewhere closer to the womb than the grave, it happens: You stop saying you are “going home” and start visiting your parents. For some, the change comes with the first foray into independence; for others, it spills into their 30s and beyond.

The subtle shift in lexicon is often spurred by significant life changes: nabbing your first real job, getting married, buying a house or having a child -- or by something as simple as being surrounded by piles of familiar stuff and not having a parent around to gently suggest you clean them up.

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“This isn’t a purely physical transition,” says Elizabeth Zelinski, dean of the USC school of gerontology. “It happens rather suddenly, physically, like when we move away from our parents. But psychologically, there’s a lag.”

Only gradually do you begin to see yourself as an adult rather than as somebody’s child.

“It’s the same with many big changes,” Zelinski says. “After you get married, it takes a while to say, ‘This is my husband’ or ‘wife.’ After you have a baby, it’s hard to think of this as being your son or daughter.”

Sometimes the defining moments crackle with clarity. Olsen’s answering machine jolt, for instance, caused her to reflect on her journey away from her parents, which started when she left for Occidental College.

“Seattle is still home,” says Olsen. And yet: “It is less and less my home, and more and more where two people live that I can visit sometimes.”

Judith King vividly recollects the moment in 1967 when her mother telephoned from Toronto to ask the 22-year-old, “When are you coming home?”

“I am home,” King blurted. She had spent just six months in L.A., a getaway fueled by “wanderlust and a bit of dipsy” in her soul, yet the transformation was complete.

Now a freelance writer with two 20-something kids of her own, King has called L.A. “home” ever since. She suggests that it was a longing for the past that caused her to connect so quickly. In many ways, 1960s Los Angeles conjured her native Montreal.

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“I grew up accustomed to that kind of activity, energy,” she says. “Los Angeles is not the same kind of city as Montreal, but it afforded me the same kind of comfort.”

Even after we cease calling it “home,” our connection to the place we grew up “doesn’t wane -- it changes,” Zelinski says. We often seek traces of our first home in our next, as King did.

“Think of home as an archipelago of homes,” says Catherine R. Cooper, professor of psychology at UC Santa Cruz. “You can see it as a journey or as a series of interconnecting moments.” The word “home” usually echoes some piece of the past.

Home for Angela Hult began on Puget Sound outside of Seattle. It extended from her front door and along the beach. It enveloped her as she trolled for fish in her father’s canoe. After marrying her college sweetheart and moving to his hometown of Portland, Ore., the water still called her back.

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Until she was nearly 30, Hult would say, “I’m going home this weekend to see my parents.” Her husband and friends would look at her quizzically.

In retrospect, Hult now sees herself slowly making the transition, milestone by milestone, to calling the place she lives as an adult “home.” She started to fall in love with local rivers, started waterskiing on the Willamette. She had a child: “That’s when I truly felt as though I had roots in Oregon,” says the 38-year-old corporate communications officer.

And just last week, Hult and her husband bought a cabin on a creek on Mt. Hood. These days, when Hult heads to the Sound, she says she’s “going up to Washington.”

Many people say that feeling at home is deeply physical, that it’s intimately tied to the walls that surround you -- that feeling comfortable in your space is an important step in calling it “home.”

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Kristine Kennedy, East Coast editor of Better Homes and Gardens magazine, suggests that people who buy a home “have more of a mind-set about putting down roots and settling down” than people who rent.

But the shift toward publicly christening the place you live as “home” often begins long before you sign for a six-figure mortgage.

Take Olsen’s house, for instance. It’s less than a year since graduation, and “the place is filled with stuff,” she says. “Every table, every lamp, makes the place seem more permanent.”

Her bedroom is decorated with dozens of mementos, bits of wrapping paper, ribbons. Then there’s the empty bag of potato chips, pinned to her bulletin board?

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“That was part of a gift,” Olsen explains. “Even the littlest things bring back positive memories.” But it’ll take even more stuff to make this her home: “I’ll look at certain empty spots on the walls in my room,” Olsen says, “and I feel like, until I fill them, I won’t be completely at home here.”

Or take Lesley Tellez’s fridge: “I’ve always thought that the true epiphany moment comes when you start putting stuff on your refrigerator,” says the 26-year-old reporter at a bilingual weekly newspaper in San Antonio, Texas. “Comics, pictures of my friends and family, bumper stickers that resonate with me, newspaper clippings.”

Two years ago, when her fridge was covered from top to bottom, when there was no white space left, when pieces of paper fluttered to the floor when she opened the freezer -- that’s when home became “home” for Tellez. She has moved since, but the fridge art moves with her, and she reassembles it on each new fridge she encounters, exactly as before.

It only takes one look at the customized fridge to remind her that, “Wow! I actually have a life that’s separate from college and totally my own.”

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