Hiraeth (pronounced HERE eye-th)
It means homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was.
Well, that’s not quite right. It’s a Welsh word that has no direct English translation. And while it may have originally meant a longing for the homeland and a sadness and grief over the lost or departed, I’ve heard it used in other ways.
Today’s American usage mixes in yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness, but the part that stays is the part about a longing with a tinge of sorrow for a place or time that maybe never existed.
That’s where our creative memories come in.
I have vivid memories of idyllic days in my childhood, when contentment was a blanket pallet on the wraparound front porch where my sister and I played house and listened to the radio. But wait, we didn’t listen to the radio. The songs we heard were from across the street where the neighbor girl had set up her own blanket home and had brought out a phonograph and was playing Elvis records. And that gal was mad at us and she was trying to outdo us, which she did. Mom would never let us haul our whopping big radio downstairs and run an extension cord into the house, which would have propped the screen door open enough for a hundred flies to set up housekeeping indoors.
Once I sat on the front porch steps with my cousin and sister and brothers snapping green beans. We sang over and over and over, “The navy gets the gravy, and the army gets the beans, beans, beans, beans. Beans.” That wasn’t an idyllic time. We didn’t want to snap a bushel basket of green beans, but we managed to turn it into fun.
I remember one morning when Dad’s wet shoes sat on that porch next to the front door. Those black shoes didn’t have their customary shine but were saturated with water, maybe ruined. Deep into the night the only hotel, a towering four stories on our two-block-long main street, burned to the ground. The volunteer fire department scrambled to fight the fire. It was such a huge event, Mom roused us from sleep and walked us kids down to stand in the park across the road and watch the flames leap skyward. She walked us home after a bit, but Dad didn’t come home till morning, soaked to the bone, and he didn’t go to work, but stumbled up to bed. His drenched shoes on a weekday on the front porch were so out of place, so out of the normal, that I can still see them in my mind’s eye, and they always make me feel protected because Dad was out in the night fighting fire.
I’ve been back to the big house in that small Arkansas town, and it bears little resemblance to the place I remember. The house still stands, but the wraparound porch and the outdoor staircase to the second floor are long gone. Now it looks like a squat dilapidated house that could use some care and paint. The current inhabitants will never know that a little girl once lay in the white porch swing (also gone) and enjoyed the gentle sway and worried about… nothing. I could stare at a spot on the ceiling for an eternity, one foot dangling down to the floor to push the swing. I was meditating, now that I know the word, emptying my mind of all but the moment and the soft floating movement.
My feeling toward that porch is hiraeth.