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Dreams of Home

In Wanting Radiance, my newest novel, a house is a far-back memory for a woman who wants to reclaim her past. Miracelle Loving, that novel’s central character, could be me. I’ve moved thirty-eight times, lived in a dozen states, had about a million lives, but one place is the place. Hagerhill, Kentucky. An asphalt-shingle-sided house on the side of a mountain is the place I dream of most. Francis Ellen Salyer, my granny, lived in that house until it was demolished to make room for Highway 23, the new road that made it easier for the mining companies to haul coal. Because of that place, I write about houses often—houses gone, houses that might or might not keep people safe. In her house, Fannie Ellen offered me open-handed love when I didn’t believe there was such a thing, and she has inhabited my dreams ever since.

It was winter when I had the dream I remember best. I was about nineteen and full of lonely. I was living on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, where I worked as a short-order cook and rose each morning at four thirty. I dreamed of an attic back in Kentucky, a place full of cloth pieces and boxes and 75-rpm record albums and school books from numerous childhoods, one of them mine.

Another time that stands out in my mind isn’t a dream exactly, though it might have been. I was twenty-one or twenty-two, and the only house I owned was a 1967 Dodge Dart with everything I called mine shoved in the backseat. I’d headed east from the Grand Canyon with nowhere to go and nowhere I wanted to be, and I ended up, one night, camped out beside Kentucky’s Cumberland Lake. Inside my pup tent, I listened to dogs bark in the distance and remembered the two redneck guys I’d seen up at the registration desk. They’d looked at me with a mixture of desire and perplexity. It was the perplexity I couldn’t shake. I ate a pack of Nabs for supper, then settled into my sleeping bag before it was good dark. It wasn’t the crunching of leaves nor even the shine of a flashlight not far from the tent that unsettled me. It was me, how the ghost of my own self seemed to head down a path to the lake, pace circles around the campsite again and again. I was lost between here and there and nowhere at all, and worse yet, didn’t care much what happened to me, and that knowledge shook me. I packed up at midnight and headed to the interstate, a crazy kid with nowhere to go.

By morning, I was in Hagerhill. I have a photograph of myself from that time. I’m sleeping on my granny’s orange-and-brown couch. I’m sleeping, and she’s photographing me, and I’m learning to feel safe, one more time.

I had another dream of my granny’s house when I was almost thirty, this one about sleeping in a cheap and good guesthouse in Kathmandu. This Nepalese world was a deluge of the senses. Everywhere the touch of hands, shoulders, press of hips in a packed bus, red bettle-nut splashes on every street, a man with blackened stumps of fingers asking for baksheesh. But for right then, I was sleeping. I was dreaming of a creosoted bridge reaching into a brown building. I was dreaming of walking across this bridge, back into my granny’s house in Kentucky, before it was too late. By the mid-’90s that house was gone, blasted with dynamite and transformed into new Highway 23.

I have dreamed that house alive again more times than I can describe. Her kitchen, the red linoleum counter, and the black dog clock with eyes that move. The back bedroom with the fireplace’s open mouth, its kind red glow that warmed me. Her bedroom, a door that opened out to the warm house, its scent of winter potatoes and the cool spring running underneath. I am dreaming now, as I write, of that warm house and the chestnut trees. The mountain I climbed so many times to sit and look out over that particular hollow of the world. I am dreaming now of the pawpaw trees I remember, the greens she showed me with names like speckled dick and cressy and poor man’s bacon. I am dreaming of quilts made of cast-off clothing, clothing you might have worn, quilts with names like Trip Around the World, Double Wedding Ring, Log Cabin, Postage Stamp, Flower Garden—all the quilts to hold us safe.

In a recent dream of my granny and her house, she was the way she used to be, before dementia and nursing homes and having to be fed her meals. She had moved home again, but the house, this time, was full of boxes neatly packed for a future I couldn’t see. I’m leaving, she said, and it’s for the last time, this time. That dream came two days before her death, just after I saw her for the last time. During that last visit, her eyes were wild, seeing something none of us could see as John, my husband, held her in his arms and told her not to be afraid.

In writing my newest book, I feel like I’ve come home at last. It’s taken me more years than I want to count to write this book. There’s always the slow building of narrative, the careful exploration of motives for characters. This time, I found myself peeling back layer after layer as I came to understand what this book was most about at its heart. It’s certainly about solving a mystery. It’s about place, and about love. But more than that, it’s about longing. I don’t mean longing for this man, that woman, or even this time or that one. I mean the search for who we are at our deepest core. In exploring Miracelle Loving’s deepest self, I have also, of course, had to explore my own. In that sense, I thank Fannie Ellen Salyer. I think she somehow knew all along how dreams of home—ones made of wood, stone, even air—make us who we are. Sometimes those dreams settle down inside words.