I live in two places, and I love them both. My main home is in Fayetteville, Arkansas, a college town in the Ozark Mountains. I live on the highest hill in a quiet cul-de-sac, surrounded by friends. When I'm there, I am content to be an adult and talk to other adults and teach graduate students two days a week at the University of Arkansas.
I love Fayetteville. I like hills and vistas and hardworking people and fighting snow in winter and chiggers in the summer. You have to be tough to live in Fayetteville at certain times of the year. January and February and parts of March are bitter cold and seem to last forever. It doesn't help that I live in a house built by a famous architect named E. Fay Jones. He was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright's and built my house the summer he came home from Taliesin West. The floors are made of stone and scored concrete. The walls are glass. It is so cold in this house in winter I think I must be a lunatic to stay. Yet I do stay because it's beautiful. Jones disliked putting gutters on his houses, so the pitched roofs make wonderful icicles that hang down outside. Light comes in the windows and the skylights, and you might as well be sleeping in a tent you are so close to nature.
I never meant to be here in the winter, but then I started teaching, and I love the students, so I can't leave. Besides, I get a lot of work done when I'm snowed in. No chiggers, no pollen, and never a dull moment trying to outwit an E. Fay Jones house and stay warm: My main line of defense is heated mattress pads and UGG boots. It used to be heated blankets, but the hippies say that heated blankets cause cancer so I switched to heated mattress pads.
My other home is a small condominium on a beach in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. I bought it in 1995 to be near my three eldest grandchildren when they were growing up. I wanted to be there to drive the girls to dancing lessons and watch my grandson play baseball and basketball. I had seen my own sons grow up. I know how fast it happens. If you aren't there to watch it, you don't get a second chance.
It is a 12-hour drive from Fayetteville to the Mississippi coast: I start off going due north and downhill. By the time I am 40 miles down the mountains, it's warmer. By the time I get to my brother's house in Jackson, Mississippi, where my family has a long history, I can take off my boots and put on pretty shoes. I usually spend the night in Jackson, where I see my nieces and nephews and my mother's antique furniture, which my sister-in-law lets my brother keep, wall to wall, in every room. My childhood is in my brother's house, and I like to visit there and be reminded. I usually stay until noon, then drive the last four hours to Ocean Springs.
My sparsely furnished three-bedroom condominium is waiting for me there, looking and feeling just like home. The condo is a no-worries house. Even on cold days, it's as warm as toast. "So this is how normal people live," I'm always thinking. "They are nice and warm and don't have to wear boots inside their houses."
I take a deep breath, carry my clothes upstairs, and take the sign off my typewriter that says, "Do not touch this machine. This is how grandmother makes a living."
The Mississippi coast is not like south Florida, but it always seems warm enough for sandals and short-sleeved shirts, except for now and then. In Ocean Springs, I take long walks on the beach every morning, watch sunsets on the pier, and wait for various offspring to come visit. It's wonderful to have a refrigerator full of whole milk and chocolate pudding. I even buy juice boxes. I like to see them sitting there, just the right size for certain little girls and boys, something they can handle. I especially like the little straws that are attached to the boxes.
When I am in Ocean Springs, I have many grandchildren and great-grandchildren within reach. They are not as easy to handle as adults, but they have nonstop energy and imagination and never have to go to the doctor for colonoscopies or skin cancer checks, or get prescription drugs for sleeplessness. Children live in the present, and since I am trying to learn to do that, they are my favorite companions in my old age. I like to watch children sleep. You can walk around a room and take things out of drawers and it does not awaken them. Children sleep in a state of grace. I have much to learn from them before I get any deeper into my 70s.
My condominium complex is the only thing on Ocean Springs's two beaches that survived Hurricane Katrina. The contents of the lower floors were swept out to sea by a 40-foot wave, but the structures were sound when the wave receded. Thanks to the smart people who serve on the condominium board, we were well insured when it came time to rebuild and repair. In September 2007, I moved back into my condo and went to work spending all my money to fill it back up with furniture and beds and toys. I refuse to let my grandchildren think a once-in-a-lifetime storm can ruin all our fun.
If I were younger, I might have sold the place, but my older grandchildren lost their childhood home in the storm and need a place to stay when they come home for weddings and festivals and to see their friends. Besides, I love Ocean Springs as much as I love Fayetteville. I like to walk on the beach and marvel at the flatness of the land, and watch the sun rise and fall on the Gulf of Mexico. Since the hurricane, I like to look out at the sea and think about all the silver and china and lamps and furniture and coffeepots and toys and bicycles that were swept out to sea. All the old letter jackets and cheerleading costumes and dance recital props and leaf blowers and automobiles. The red electric truck I bought for the children to drive to the beach, and then drive home and inside through the sliding glass doors, is out there somewhere, rusted now perhaps, a home for squid or barracuda.
The children and I were planning on buying a new truck, but while I was in Fayetteville the builder put on new doors, and they're too narrow to drive a truck through. Maybe we'll build a toy garage.
I am a lucky woman. I have two homes that wrap around me and make me feel safe. Fayetteville, beautiful little wooded town. Nothing to do but teach school and write books and wait for the mail. Ocean Springs, children and toys and a typewriter that is mostly turned to the wall. Moist air that fills in my wrinkles and curls my hair. No worries, no freezing, no shoes.
Ellen Gilchrist is the author of Victory Over Japan, The Anna Papers, and Nora Jane: A Life in Stories. Her latest novel is A Dangerous Age (Algonquin).