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Credit: Seyoung An

The problem was this: My mother was cooking Thanksgiving dinner and she needed sour cream. The obvious solution was that I should be a helpful daughter and offer to pick some up from the grocery store. Under normal circumstances, I would have agreed without hesitation. But this was our first Thanksgiving in the new house in the new state in a strange part of the country, and I had no idea where the grocery store was.

Credit: Rebecca Alifimoff

Thankfully though, we live in a world with Google Maps and turn-by-turn navigation, so I climbed into the trusty Subaru that had ferried me to and from high school every day and haltingly made my way to a store called “PriceChopper.” There, I wandered up and down the foreign aisles in search of the dairy section. 

When I found the sour cream, I was oddly emotional, moved by the strange melancholy of grocery stores on Thanksgiving and an overwhelming wave of homesickness.

I wanted my grocery store. The one with the amazing chocolate chip cookies, where the sour cream was logically placed between the cheese and the yogurt and not inexplicably with the dip mix.

But alas, this was the strange new world of Mansfield, Conn. and it was nothing like the one I knew in Fort Wayne, Ind. 

When your parents move while you’re in college, it creates a strange tear in your identity. I am from Fort Wayne, although I will likely never return there. All of the minutiae of home exists there: my favorite coffee shop, with its terrible mochas that I sucked down in succession while working on my junior year research project; the IHOP where my friends and I crowded into booths after the opening night of every high school play; the grocery store closest to my house, where the checkout ladies always called me “sweetheart.”

The irony is not lost on me. In high school, I wanted more than anything to move away from Indiana and never return. Now that I’ve gotten my wish, I miss it with a longing ache.   

Over fall break I tried to explain this to my mother — this feeling that I will never be home again, not until I settle somewhere on my own, as I banged angrily through the kitchen, in search of a coffee mug. I opened one cabinet after another, revealing plates and then pasta, but never the coveted mug.

“I just don’t have a home anymore, you know?”

My mother looked hurt.

“I’ll always be your home.”

I understood what she meant, metaphorically, but it’s hard to call someplace home when you don’t know how the shower works.

I know that I am enormously lucky and privileged. Growing up, I was always jealous of my friends whose families were close at hand, who went to school with their cousins, and were babysat by their grandparents. My family was always a plane ride away, dotted along the East Coast and only seen during Christmas and family vacations. 

At Penn, I am closer to my family than I have ever been in my life. I have family in Philadelphia who have graciously opened their doors to me. They have cooked me dinner and dutifully attended my performing arts shows. They’ve made me feel unbelievably loved and welcomed in a city that is not my own.

“In high school, I wanted more than anything to move away from Indiana and never return. Now that I’ve gotten my wish, I miss it with a longing ache.”

But the transitory nature of college makes it hard to adopt Philadelphia as my home. No matter how much we try to assimilate or explore, as students we’ll always be guests here. It’s not just a matter of geography either. Yes, summers and breaks often take us far from the city. Yes, most of us will leave after graduation and never come back. But it’s almost a matter of ourselves as well.

In high school, I felt solid, cobbled together by the things that I thought I knew about the world and about myself. But in college, the ground is constantly shifting. I’m growing up, shaping my future, shedding versions of myself like mad.

I don’t just miss Indiana. I miss the person I was when I lived there. 

Not entirely. I’m older, and wiser in certain hard-fought ways. But I miss the confidence of feeling like I knew everything, the way the world felt small and malleable when I lived in the island-town surrounded by a sea of corn.

REBECCA ALIFIMOFF is a College sophomore from Fort Wayne, Ind. studying history. Her email address is ralif@sas.upenn.edu. "Alifimoff's Alley" usually appears every other Wednesday.

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