PEOPLE LOOK at me in disbelief when I tell them I live with my mother. I don't blame them; I can't believe it myself. I'm 41 years old.

But at this stage of life, it makes perfect sense for me. And best of all, after two decades away from home, I have been given an unexpected chance to understand my past.

In the fall of 1989, I began a sabbatical at the University of Michigan. I was divorced, my daughter was in college and I was free to move to Ann Arbor for a year and accept a welcome opportunity for mid-career renewal before going back to the grind.

When I returned to Washington last summer, important changes had occurred. My father had died, leaving my mother alone at our family home in Glenarden, Md. My daughter had graduated and was in her own apartment. My house in the District, which I had rented out, had lost its sentimental hold on me.

Meanwhile, I had rediscovered the old family homestead. The house in Glenarden had become a comfort to me, like a forgotten friend. I first noticed this on the day I came home for my father's funeral. I could smell the memories there -- my father's Old Spice aftershave and his cherry pipe tobacco. My sisters, my brother and I swear the aromas are permanently set in the walls and floors.

Somehow an idea took shape. My mother was the sole occupant of a four-bedroom, two-bathroom house. I needed a place to live. Two women sharing a house seemed sensible to me. Even a mother and daughter could be roommates.

And yet, I found dozens of reasons to say, "No." This was the woman who had nearly driven me insane before I left home in 1968 when I was 18. When I wore dreadlocks, my mother, would say, "Why don't you straighten your hair?" When I stopped eating meat, she asked in horror, "Are you a Black Muslim?"

And not much seemed to have changed. I was the oldest of seven children, and those who had lived with mother more recently than I said she still had a million ways of grating on your last nerve. I had turned my nose up at siblings who stayed beyond their 18th year. "I swear I could never live at home," I insisted. "I'm an adult."

Returning home would mean I had failed, I reasoned. And yet, I did. But first there were some practical matters to consider. From the beginning, I accepted one basic truth: This is still my mother's house. Having had my own house, I know what that means. I respect her wishes and her rules -- a difficult task when I was younger. If I move something, for example, I put it back in its place.

I pay rent to her, and at first -- because I am a vegetarian -- I bought separate groceries and kept them in a separate refrigerator. But my mother is at home during the day, and when I get home late after work she has meals waiting -- like homemade vegetable soup and cornbread, pot roast, fresh collard greens and black-eye peas. I just ignore the meat and eat the vegetables.

Privacy is important for both of us, and happily the layout of the house has worked in our favor. My bedroom is in the basement, where there is also a bathroom and a recreation room. I have my own phone and my own number. Our quarters are so separate, in fact, that sometimes I jokingly call her on the telephone and we talk -- she in her upstairs room, I in my basement bedroom.

And because I'm older, there are very few rules -- certainly no curfews and very little advice. "There's a separate door down there in case you have company," my mother pointed out, though I wasn't sure why. My company still comes through the front door so I can introduce her, as I did when I was younger. I can't imagine it any other way. Sometimes I find her in bed when I get home, or she comes down to sit on the edge of my bed and we laugh and joke into the wee hours, as if we were two sisters.

So now I think of my moving back home as a bookmark that separates the chapters of my life. The days of the little girl lie on one side and on the other side lies a time when the girl is old enough to enjoy the home and neighborhood where she was raised and the woman who once seemed to run her life. "I am worried about myself," I said to one of my sisters recently. "Sometimes, I understand mother."

In Glenarden, I was known as "Pat," the oldest child of William and Eleanor Gaines, the family on Hayes Street. I wanted anonymity, or at least an identity I created for myself. I also wanted a clean slate, because I was developing something of a "reputation" among neighborhood adults.

I was, for the times, a bad kid. Everything bored me, particularly adults and school. I defied every curfew my parents set, and once even jumped out my bedroom window to sneak off to a party.

I skipped classes while in high school, spending my days at the Howard Theatre, where I could watch Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye or Mary Wells for about $3. I was either in trouble with my teachers or ignored by them. I was the kid who would never succeed.

By the time I left home, I believed them. My mother and her friends tried to save me. The ladies made it their business to try to spot me in the wrong places: in a car when I should have been at school; on the corner when I was supposed to be in bed. "You believe your friends before you believe me," I told my mother, a charge she never denied.

Her friends once went out on the streets to help her look for me. It was several hours past my curfew and I was sitting on a corner when one of my girlfriends yelled, "Pat, your mother is coming down the street! She's got a big stick and some people with her!"

A posse of housewives was galloping toward me, their house shoes clacking on the sidewalk. My mother, in the lead, was carrying a stick. I had the good sense to run. By the time they got back to the house, I was in bed. That was more than 20 years ago. The tree in our backyard, where we all carved our names, had not yet been reduced to a stump because of termites. The children I babysat were not yet adults with children of their own. My father was alive.

Just last year, my father and I stood on the front porch and I asked him how long we had lived in that house.

"Twenty-six years," he said, looking up and down the street with pride.

Since his death, my mother's girlfriends have gathered around her more than ever. After exchanging greetings, I usually retreat to my corner, leaving them to each other. But on a recent visit my mother invited me to sit on the back porch with them. We conjured up memories, laughed loud and sipped wine. When the conversation turned to some of my pranks, I was struck by the kindness in their voices. After years of thinking they were laughing at me, I realized they were simply laughing at youth -- at mine and at theirs.

I made them pose for pictures. They put their arms around each other's shoulders and smiled. I looked through the lens and got a closer look at them: four sassy and smart women, more like me than different.

At times, the memories are almost overwhelming. I stand in the window of our family's house often, scanning up and down the street, taking it all in: the houses where friends used to live, the families who have lost loved ones -- two sons dead of AIDS, fathers gone.

On beautiful mornings, I jog past the old elementary school where I worked one summer, the school that my nieces and nephew attend now. I pass the houses of classmates who have died, and I am very much aware of my arms and legs. I jog through streets that wind and curve. I imagine each street is an arm, and I feel hugged.

One recent afternoon, I ran over to the neighborhood cleaners, clinging to a pair of slacks and the ragged cloth I had hacked from one hem. Mrs. Ward, the seamstress, laughed when I asked her to repair the damage. "You do the darnest things," she said. I felt comforted because I knew she could fix anything. She had altered my prom dress, turned long skirts into miniskirts and hemmed my daughter's coats.

On a Sunday night, a tooth started hurting and I called Dr. Burnett, the neighborhood dentist, at home. He met me at his office at 8:30 in the evening.

I was headed for work one morning when I passed a familiar face, a man who is mentally retarded and who was just a kid when I left home. Everybody in Glenarden knows him and his family, and everybody looks out for him. He was standing at the bus stop holding a brown lunch bag.

"Where you going?" I yelled.

"To work," he said proudly.

I waved and he waved back. As I drove off, I looked into my rear view mirror at everything I was leaving. I couldn't wait to get back home.

Patrice Gaines-Carter covers local issues for The Washington Post.