Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

March 11, 2024

WEIRENS | A Burglar Taught Me Where Home Really Is 

Print More

One a.m., Christmas Eve. I laid in bed, yawning and doom scrolling through my phone.  Little did I know, my entire perception of community and place was about to be changed forever. As I watched my last Instagram clip of the evening, a motion notification from my Ithaca security camera pinged. Curious, I clicked and watched the live footage. Sadly, it wasn’t Santa. 

Video from my home security camera

From my bedroom in Minnesota, I watched my screen as the real-life grinch made his way through my Collegetown kitchen. A memorable Christmas ensued as I spent the night on the phone with the police, landlords and neighbors. 

The man didn’t end up stealing anything (to our knowledge) besides the camera that so dutifully notified me of his presence: ironic. The house was minimally trashed. Nobody was harmed. But I had never considered how alarming it is to see someone standing in your kitchen, even if they don’t physically rob or hurt you. 

The experience made me think: Is home still home even when we’re away? After all, the places we consider home are only as we imagine them when we’re present. We don’t actually have a perception of what they’re like when we’re gone. 

An early return to check on my house in a deserted Collegetown at the beginning of January made me further appreciate the community that makes Ithaca home. A kind Uber driver, who also happened to serve as a military sergeant, helped me check my house for squatters or potential returning grinches before dropping me off. As someone who doesn’t even like going into my own basement with my entire family at home, what ensued was probably one of my most sphincter-clenching nights of my life. The completely empty house and desolate street was just too much. Satisfied that I didn’t find any men inside, but too creeped out to stay any longer, I made a run for the Canadian border and didn’t come back until the day before classes started. 

And when I returned, it was like nothing bad had ever happened. The effect of students being everywhere, my housemates and friends bustling about, was like an oxytocin high after a marathon. The nervousness I had felt alone in deserted Collegetown seemed unimaginable now that it was filled with my community. The previously-annoying sounds of my upstairs neighbors stomping about came as a comfort, and the living room I had once scurried about fearfully came back alive with my winterly “milk party.” 

It’s a very cheesy sentiment, but this whole experience, more than anything, made me realize that home is not a place, but a people. During the semester, Cornell students make up approximately two-thirds of Ithaca’s population, so their absence over breaks causes a dramatic demographic shift that accentuates this phenomenon. 

And, I believe, it’s oftentimes the smallest observations and interactions you have everyday that create this sense of place. For me, it’s seeing the steady trickle of students huffing and puffing up the hill to class as I brush my teeth. Some are alone, some are with a friend, some are with a whole group. The lucky ones drive by in cars. I don’t know all their names, but I recognize their faces and backpacks. As for myself, after procrastinating with my alarms, I usually power walk to campus each morning while shoveling yogurt into my mouth.  

Even the critters are a part of our home. The same plump spotted stray cat has been stealing scraps outside my house for the past year, and our street wouldn’t feel the same without him. Not to mention the obese squirrels dragging whole bagels and slices of pizza into the crevice of our porch roof. There really is a certain safety in the familiar that cannot be replicated by anything but the community itself.

Although at Christmastime, my kitchen was a place to ransack for cash, it’s usually a place for my friends and I to gather on weekend evenings to laugh, bake, cook and socialize. The basement laundry room, a prime location for squatters over break, is now a place for my roommate and I to gossip over heaps of dirty clothes and dusty floors. It all just depends on who, not where. 

And that’s why Cornell isn’t just gorges and clock towers to me. Our idea of Ithaca, Cornell University and Collegetown is completely different for each individual, even though we’re all in the same place. That’s why I will always cherish and feel at home in my Cornell community long after I’ve left Ithaca itself.

Aurora Weirens is a third year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. Her fortnightly column The Northern Light illuminates student life. She can be reached at [email protected].

The Cornell Daily Sun is interested in publishing a broad and diverse set of content from the Cornell and greater Ithaca community. We want to hear what you have to say about this topic or any of our pieces. Here are some guidelines on how to submit. And here’s our email: [email protected].