On Home

When I was a small child – first grade, at most – I spent a lot of time touring open houses with my parents. They weren’t in the market to buy, they just liked to look and dream – much like people do when watching House Hunters (which I just typo’d as House Hungers, which says a lot). They had purchased property outside of a nearby town, 11 acres that backed up to national forest on three sides, cut through by a public path that led in a half a mile in one direction to a national park and the seashore, and five miles in the other direction past more beaches and eventually to the outskirts of the arty section of town. They couldn’t afford to build yet, but they were already thinking about what they wanted. I remember them sketching together – nothing concrete, just circles to represent spaces (public space/private space).

At the time we lived in a house on the shore of Puget Sound, halfway between the village where my elementary school was located, and a town with a grocery store. It had a traditional layout, entry into a living room with one wall a picture window onto a deck overhanging the shore, a long hallway to the left leading to my mother’s sewing room, the guest room, and the master. The dining room through a wide opening to the right, with sliding glass doors overlooking the deck, then the kitchen overlooking the front walk, with a door onto the carport. We kids slept in a spacious attic that wrapped around the chimney, with deep window seats overlooking the carport roof and the loft over the garage where my father spent endless hours not writing. Downstairs, the basement where my father exploded homebrew beer and it flooded at high-tide. The location couldn’t be beat, with a beach to explore out back, and across the rural route to the front (never to be crossed without a grown up), a meadowed hill and the haunted house where Miss Ghosty lived. But my parents hungered for more and so began the weekend pilgrimages to nearby Bainbridge Island – at the time, the bastion of cutting edge Pacific Northwest Design. They dragged us through house after house with pale carpeting, white walls, wood trim, and inoperative windows strategically placed to capture a view of the woods while missing the neighbors. At the time I didn’t appreciate it but the whole experience of house-hunger left me – at seven years old – to begin drawing floor plans and elevations for houses I would never live in, detailed plans for circular houses on stilts in the sound, where I could live with my best friend on the upper level of the veterinary clinic where we lovingly tended to the animals that I had in abundance in my life and her family would never permit her.

After that, we lived in a series of temporary houses, stop-gaps until we could make it home again: a shadowy rental across the street from the elementary school; the gangly ranch my mother lovingly rehabbed into a worthy canvas for her (then) macramé obsession – the only time we lived in a neighborhood, the kind of place where you barbequed every weekend by the pool with the neighborhood and the kids ran wild in the streets doing things that would curl the hair of the protective moms of the new millennium; the split level ranch with the orange-striped foil wallpaper in the half-bath under the stairs off the rec room and lava rock fountains out front and out back. Lastly, the tiny two-bedroom apartment in the motel-like building where I claimed the walk-in closet off my sisters’ room as my space until we found a way to move back out to the land my parents had purchased so many years before. We didn’t dare consider any of these places Home.

Neither was the trailer on The Property, where I spent my high school years, Home. It was a temporary stop-gap – and a stop-gap where I lived the longest, out of all those houses – until the folks could build their dream home up the hill, near the back of the lot, tucked in amongst the huge cedars overlooking the creek. When Home was finally built, my father had moved on and so had I – off to college across the country – and it ended up reflecting my mom’s idea of Home: a beautiful, cold, lofty house, without enough walls, doors, and ceilings for me and too many stairs; a house that I always said would be perfect for a divorced dad who only had the kids on weekends. Since I had left home, she didn’t even build a bedroom for me, just “The Understudy,” a lower level room, open to the living room and master above, with a giant window to let light into the hallway, and no door. Hooray. Many years later, as she started to consider her legacy, and my sister convinced her to move closer so we could watch over her health, she wondered why none of us wanted her dream house in the woods, inconveniently far from the city lights two of us thrived on, and too removed from community for my other sister.

My husband’s family lived in one house until he went to college – a tiny duplex with a postage-stamp yard, filled with love and laughter, surrounded by neighbors his family still communicate with. When his dad retired, his parents sold it and moved to their dream home in Florida, an inexpensive pink house that his mom worked with the builder to design and furnish. His sisters both purchased huge Victorian homes in college towns with big backyards and shady trees, and beautiful woodwork since destroyed by their growing families, and much loved.

When my husband and I purchased our home, my mother happened to visit and I took her open-housing, a different experience in NYC. She disliked the post-war junior 2BR that we ended up buying because she said it had no personality. But that was why I liked it – because it was a canvas where I could put my personality. After almost 17 years here, there are many things I don’t like about it – the bathroom which I disastrously designed myself, the lack of heat in my office, the noisy neighbors, the strange smell of cigarette smoke that greets us when we return home sometimes, the lack of storage (our fault for hoarding, not it’s fault) – but a lack of personality isn’t on the list.

Now all my open-housing is online through the proxy of HGTV and the like. My husband loves Open House NY, where you can tour huge, beautifully-designed mansions, too large to live in comfortably, all public space, where the wealthy live a rootless existence, moving endlessly from one to another, searching for a home of their own while owning 5,000, 10,000, 15,000 square foot palaces. I think of medieval royalty, who carried their beds and other furniture with them, as they moved from castle to castle – or the relicts of the last of the robber barons (in the US) and aristocrats (in the UK) who gradually closed up room after room as their funds dried up and their staffs shrunk, finally living in a tiny apartment in a corner of their huge home, the rest of the house falling into disrepair, the grounds crumbling, and wonder where it all will end.

Now my mom’s dream house is gone, and she’s living in another dream house, a pre-war home on a shady street not far from my sister. She downsized her collections, getting rid of all the stuff she registered for when she married and never used, and keeping hundreds of baskets and shells she collected on her travels. My husband’s parents – on the verge of their 90s now – are also looking at their dream house, literally filled to the brim with family photos and treasures, and dangerously far from family, and trying to figure out how to make that work.

And I consider, what do I want in my own future? I still draw floor plans for houses I’ll never build. I’ve always dreamed of a house overlooking the water but my husband is a city boy. His idea of the same is a high-rise in Honolulu but that’s far from family and, like other sea-level towns, risks flooding as the seas rise. Someplace on the Finger Lakes? But, even with global warming, it gets bitterly cold up there, and the warm memories we have there are of family gatherings, not the place itself. Stay in the city? Maybe — I still think it’s a great place to grow old — but expensive. And with this new tax bill, more practical friends are already looking at downsizing into smaller apartments, will we need to downsize, too? If so, count me out.

So I ask, what makes a home? And I wonder, how will we live in the future?

What are your thoughts on this topic?

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