I went home for Thanksgiving. It was my first trip back since I moved to Maine over a year and a half ago. When I crossed the threshold of my childhood house and landed in the arms of my mother, it felt as though a decade had passed, but at the same time, as though I had never left.

I could still get behind the wheel and take you through Springfield, Illinois, on autopilot, showing you all of the places I used to go.

I’d take you to Blessed Sacrament, where I attended grades kindergarten through eight wearing a plaid skirt and untucked polo. I’d tell you how the blacktop was not just a playground, but also our town square; it’s where we gossiped and did a lot of our growing up. We could cruise by the soccer fields where I spent the majority of Saturday mornings, and then to the baseball diamond where my brother would play under the lights. I’d tell you how I used to sit behind home plate and work the scoreboard, punching in the balls and strikes and practicing my skills as a commentator.

We’d stay on the west side of town and I’d take you up the hill at Centennial Park, one of the few places you can star gaze in the city, and we could roll down it as only the brave kids would — indifferent to the grass stains acquired in the process. On the way home, I’d show you all of the shortcuts and in which neighborhood you’ll get pulled over just for thinking about speeding.

I’ll take you inside and show you to the dining room where I used to do my homework. I’d show you our cramped kitchen, where I learned how to cook by watching my mom. I’d show you the basement where we took shelter during the 2006 tornado that tore shingles off the roof and uprooted the tree on the side of our house. On our way up to my bedroom we’d probably pass one of my cats, perched on top of the couch, curled up and bathing in a slice of the afternoon sun. As we climb the stairs, I’d tell you which creaky step (second to last at the very top) to avoid if you’ve come home past curfew. In my room, I’d laugh telling you about all the times I’d lain face down on my bed, heartbroken, and playing the same NSYNC song on repeat until my eyes burned and I couldn’t cry anymore. I’d tell you how much bigger the house seemed when I was a kid.

Part of the comfort of home is this familiarity — the knowing of every crack and crevice of my house and the city. And yet, as Joan Didion once put it, “some nameless anxiety colored the emotional charges between me and the place that I came from.” However, unlike Didion, my apprehensions are not nameless.

Springfield is a place where life can feel small. Growing up there, it often seemed as though “what matters” didn’t extend outside city limits. The world beyond central Illinois never really occurred to us. It’s the kind of place where parents send their children to the same schools they attended, and sometimes even had the same teachers (I always found it jarring when Mr. Lavin talked about what so-and-so’s dad or mom was like.) And then, when they grow up, they’ll probably send their kids to the same schools, and they’ll have the same teachers, and the cycle continues. It was a prospect that I long ago desired, and one I have been running away from since I turned 19.

The vortex nature of the town is one that frightens me. Maybe one day I’ll decide to stay, and then never be able to leave. Hometowns are like quicksand; the harder you try to escape, the tighter its hold on you becomes and the farther you sink. Some of my old friends echoed my anxiety, saying, “If I don’t leave now, I’ll be here forever.”

Springfield is not an inherently bad place to end up. I might feel differently if not for the emotional baggage I carry while I’m there. Because knowing every crack and crevice means running into my past at every turn, even the painful parts. Over the years, some of those warm childhood memories have been papered over by the drama of family life, and it’s muddied my fondness for, and even my concept of, home.

And now, when I take you up those stairs, my bedroom is no longer my bedroom. My sister has a house of her own; my brother, an apartment; and my dad lives an hour away.

After eight days in Springfield, the house and the city didn’t exactly feel like home any longer. But neither does St. Louis, where I went to college; and neither does Maine.

And now I don’t think home is really a place at all; maybe it’s people, and maybe it’s a feeling. Maybe home is getting into a fight with my sister and an hour later she hands me her lip gloss to wear. Maybe it’s falling asleep on the couch watching Monday Night Football with my dad. Maybe it’s how I felt when I saw my mom for the first time in over a year.

Whatever home is, I’m hopeful when I think about making one of my own.

Emily Higginbotham, originally from Illinois, is a reporter at the Morning Sentinel. You can follow her on Twitter: @EmilyHigg. Or reach her by email: [email protected]