Moving in, moving on

By Susan K. Olson

BY THE TIME THE MIDDLE of September hits, the college campus where I work settles into a rhythm of sorts. We’ve made it through the orientations, the adding and dropping of classes, the meeting of roommates. The new notebooks have creases, the laptop covers have their first scratches, and that tightly planned schedule has started to loosen a bit. September’s sun is at its best in a New England late summer. The campus is bathed in a halcyon light. It is perfect, stunning, the very picture of collegiate bliss. And yet, if you listen closely, there’s a hint of a sound, just beyond the marching band, the carillon bells, and that one guy who plays his music way too loudly. If you tune your ear, you can hear a whisper around campus and it sounds like this, “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.”

There are times, I suppose when all of us feel a little like Dorothy from the wizard of Oz. We’d do just about anything to get away from the place where we’re born and raised, and then once we’re out of there, we want to click our heels and wish ourselves back home. Those same four walls and dusty knickknacks and familiar people are looking frightfully appealing right now. You can’t remember just why it was that you left. Home. Just the word smells like apple cobbler and corn on the cob. Home. The high school soccer team, the local pizza joint and Amazing Grace at church. Home.

I guess I’m a bit of a reluctant expert at homesickness. I’ve worked at summer camps and colleges for more years than I care to count. I’ve heard six-year-olds whimper and grown men blubber at the thought of mom or dad— or, more often, the family dog, left behind. Campus life contributes to this wave of nostalgia and wistfulness. Sometimes it seems like everyone’s so happy to be at school and having the best four years of their life. The road to being admitted to college is a rough one, and students have been led to believe that after the tests and the reference letters and waiting for the yes letter, everything will be perfect. Happy or not, though, many of the students and even the faculty, find their minds drifting back to Seoul and Missoula, Peoria and Atlanta. No matter how old or happy you are, you can’t help but miss home.

I used to consider myself a wanderer. I’d tell people that my home was where I happened to be at the time. I was only fooling myself. I may have moved around often in my younger days, but I’ve always felt deeply connected to those people and places that have loved me and I them. I’ve been in Connecticut for over twenty years now, but I still yearn for the applehood and mother pie of the Midwest where I was raised, the raucous laughter of friends from college and grad school now strewn all over the globe. If I think about it, I can conjure up the way the lake smells at the Girl Scout camp I grew up attending, or the sound of 10-year-olds splashing in the pool at the camp I volunteered at for years. We attach ourselves deeply to places and people. We are all, at heart, homebodies. Moving around just creates more people and places to miss.

On move-in day, I witnessed an amazing sight converging on the college campus. Refrigerators and computers, bedspreads and bulletin boards all paraded into the residence halls. Frazzledlooking parents looked for parking, siblings gawked, everyone carried something. Wagons rolled, posters were tucked under arms, backpacks and overstuffed suitcases wound their ways up narrowed stairs. As the day went on, these utilitarian items took on new looks. Bland institutional furniture was transformed or hidden to create individualistic rooms—cozy and homey, sleek and sophisticated, or Early American Chaos adorn the walls. Our students sure try to make their rooms look like home. My dad tells me—way too often—about going to college with a typewriter, a clarinet, one suitcase and a shoebox. I made it to college with all my belongings tucked into the trunk of my family’s Ford Granada. I saw vans and U-Hauls and car-top carriers coming to campus this fall.

THE REV. SUSAN K. OLSON is a teaching elder (pastor) in the Presbyterian Church USA. She serves as part-time pastor for the First Congregational Church of Lyme (Connecticut), while working full time in disability services at Yale University.

This excerpted article appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Gather. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.