Monday, May 11, 2009

What Makes a House a Home?*

It is probably different for everyone, at least a little different, that ineffable set of qualities that makes a house a home.

I've been thinking back to all the many places I've lived over the years: in Brooklyn, in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, in Texas, in Jerusalem, and back to Brooklyn again; a spooky brownstone shared with my grandparents, parents, and sister, our ramshackle cottage by the lake, the dorm rooms, the apartments shared with strangers, and with friends, and even a couple shared with strangers who became friends...I can only come to my own very personal conclusions on this topic. Some of these places I lived in for mere months, and they felt like home. I lived in some places for years, and never felt quite comfortable.

So here's what I've learned:

There is one thing guaranteed to make a house feel less than welcoming.

Even if your house is cozy, if you don't feel at home in the neighborhood, the house might not feel like home. When I lived in Queens, when Hedgie was a baby and a toddler, and Sarge worked nights, and I didn't know anyone, my family and friends were an hour away by subway, I felt alone in the grocery store, the laundromat, on the streets, and this loneliness followed me home every day. That apartment, nice as it was (lord knows I tried to make it as homelike as possible, and we had a pretty backyard, almost unheard-of in NYC) didn't ever feel like a home, not once during five long--let me say agonizing--years.

By contrast, the apartment I shared with two other students in Jerusalem, a foreign country where I didn't speak the language and arrived not knowing a soul nor what to expect, without Sarge (for whom, let it be noted, I never stopped pining) and where I lived for not even an entire year, was the very essence of sweet Home. The neighborhood was an adventure waiting for me every morning, the streets unfamiliar but thrillingly different from anything I'd known. I loved my big, airy room and the balcony overlooking the Knesset, where we ate dinner in the cool evening breezes, the tiny kitchen where we cooked our Kosher meals, the terrible bathtub whose faucet gave you a slight electric shock when you ran the hot water, the livingroom, with its drab outmoded '60s decor, where we entertained a crowd on Shabbat--in that place, strangers became friends, food tasted wonderful, and I felt secure.

The difference was all in how I felt about the world around me. Queens was inhospitable to my very soul; Jerusalem welcomed me with open arms.

Outside must feel like home for your house to be a home too.

That said, what belongs inside a home-y house?

Books: Preferably many, many books. Shelves and shelves of well-loved books, new books, encyclopedias, poetry, books from your childhood and adolescence, gifts from husband and friends. Not hidden away, but keeping a wise and benevolent watch over the daily activities.

Hobbies: tangible evidence of hobbies and passions. For me, the glass pitcher of knitting needles (some from my grandmother and even from her mother), my yarn swift, a basket of brightly colored yarn, my pattern books. Hedgehog's art supplies, her origami paper, her Fimo clay, her Legos. Sarge's WWII-era plane models and all the little paints and airbrushes and soldering guns and modelling magazines. We're a family that likes to make things, and our house wouldn't be a home without the many projects in varying stages of completion.

Pets: I don't think I've lived in a house without pets ever, except for my college years, and even in the last two years I had a hamster named Patsy Cline to fill the still nights with her cozily creaking wheel and her corn nibbling.

Solitude, occasionally: I must have a quiet place to go, where I can daydream undisturbed.

A place to gather: I'm not a particularly formal person, and I don't hold with the fancy parlors of my grandmother's day, where children could go but only to sit still on a stiff silk couch, but I feel like I have to have a place where my friends can gather, a place that is comfortable and presentable and easy on the eyes and has soft places to sit and a low table on which to place snacks at arm's reach. For me, in my present house, that place is my livingroom. I love my living room.

Music: A house without books is not, to me, a home. The same for a house without music. I treasure our old record collection, even our cds. And I've always lived in a house with live music, in which at least a couple of the inhabitants play instruments, and those instruments fill the extra spaces along with sheet music, metronomes, drawers of extra strings and rosin and tuners. When I was growing up, we all played instruments, even my grandfather, who took up flute in his 70s and was not half bad. Sarge plays guitar, and I play the violin and mandolin. Hedgehog starts cello lessons in the fall. I won't even mind the screechy sound of the early scales; to me this is home.

Lamps: I find overhead lighting too insistent and unfriendly, not to mention unflattering. Although, Sarge disagrees with me on this one, and let's be honest, we're going a bit blind from crafting in lamplight...

Rugs: this one was volunteered by Hedgehog, and I agree with her. Area rugs underfoot, at least at some interval. Bare floors alone are chilly, to the foot and to the eye.

Nice sheets and towels: It may sound superficial, but these things make me feel that I live in a home.

Evidence of a religious life: The Jewish calendar is filled with holidays, each holiday has its own special accessories, and each of these tangible reminders of our faith has a personal as well as a collective history: the mezuzot, the silver Chanukiah, and the challah and seder plates that have sat at my family tables for generations; my grandmother's Shabbat candlesticks; the set of Passover haggadot so well-worn, thumbed, perused, and annotated, that we are on our second set.

Reminders of loved ones, now gone: for some, this might be photos or home movies. For me, it is the collection on my dresser of treasures that once belonged to my grandmother: a paperweight, her brass thread-holder, a glass tray for perfume, a jar of very very old potpourri, and a little blue Lalique container with a broken lid, to hold my rings.

A coffee pot: after the books, this was the second thing to be unpacked when we moved. A house isn't a home to me without a coffee pot and a nice mug. Or several. My current favorite is this one.

A dining table: whether it's three people sitting down for takeout falafel, or a crowd for Shabbat dinner, the table is essential.

Laughter: humor fills my home-y house. Without it, what?

This is quite subjective, though. So, what do you think makes a house a home?

*MJ's good idea.


Auntie, aka Dog Girl said...

Funny, I used to live in Astoria Queens for 2 years. Hated it. Been living in the Bronx now for 20years. It's better than Queens.
I love Brooklyn. Fab restaurants.

Very insightful post.
BTW, when on earth do you find the time to study?
Just wondering.

Suzanne said...

You know me. I'm on the brink of tears. You know me. I love this post so much and I love you. I do my darling friend. Huge exhale. All the things important to you are important to me, but I know you know that. When I move back home you know you can walk into my home and feel comfortable and I can walk into yours and feel the same. It matters how open your arms are. How willing to embrace. It all matters. My home is always yours and I know yours is always mine.

This post is so special and thank you. It made me smile and I'm still smiling. It's just very beautiful.

I love you baby. I know you know that, but I want to remind you. Thank you for all your love and support. It all matters, you know?

XO Suze

Leah said...

Auntie--yup, hate Queens. It's now like I have a personal vendetta against it...

Brooklyn is my hometown, always was and always will be. And it's true that it has great restaurants (actually, so does Queens, but let's not speak of that!)

as for studying, well, writing really, it's not the blogging that gets in my way, that's really relatively minimal, it's everything else...

Suzy--I'm so glad you liked this! Once I started I couldn't stop...I'm so sure I've left something out, but I guess with pets, books, and coffee...


Dot-Com said...

While I don't like pets an awful lot, you certainly got the essentials for what makes a home a home. I've travelled much. Moved many times. To me, home is where the heart is.

Brian Miller said...

what an amazing post! I think you have the essence of a home perfect. laughter and fun included...the neighborhood makes all the difference and will make you home feel in exile...what is a nice home without someone to share it with?

so great you captured it well.

Megan said...

Wow, you have quite a lot of requirements there.

Leah said...

Dot-Com--you're right, of course. That's the essence of it, in the end.

Brian--I didn't include Sarge and Hedgie in the list, but I guess I'd have to put them above books and a coffee pot, LOL.

Megan--really? I could have gone on even. But of course, I've also been happy with less and miserable with more.

The Idle Devil said...

Wonderful post and a great idea. For me, books especially make a house a home...even ones stacked up without shelves. I like homes with a touch of history, especially old-style or antique furniture. And potted plants in or around the window/verandah.

Suzanne said...

Baby, you didn't leave anything out. This is a gem of a post. I love you so much.


MJ said...

I have that same coffee cup!

nick said...

Very interesting subject. I'd go along with all those except religion as I'm not a believer. Perhaps books and music are my religion! I'd also add paintings and ornaments, especially ornaments that remind me of the particular places they came from.

And you're right about only feeling at home in a certain neighbourhood. Some, like people, just have a clashing personality that gets on your nerves.

kylie said...

i dont know what makes a house a home really.
i know that home is where i want to be when i'm sick or tired or distressed.
some say that home is the place where they have to accept you if the police bring you home.
i know that i feel slightly disconcerted when i live without pets
i agree about plants too (idle devil) i'm no green thumb but even one or two plants, or a vase of flowers give a place some soul.

i could go on about this for ages.....

great post leah!

kylie said...

oh, and just as the first cold starts to bite i remember last winter without heating and i'll say that a home really should be as warm as you can make it

just bob said...

That's why San Jose will never be home for me.

Karen ^..^ said...

This was such an "Ahhhhh...." Post. I loved it. I love your ideas on what makes a house a home, and it's so strange, because me and K2 were having this very same discussion in the car yesterday. So weird! We also discussed how we did not feel as if our beachside house was our home, and how this little apartment does.

I absolutely agree with BOOKS. Most definitely. I agree with animals, I think candles, small heirlooms of those we love, cats, knitting and crocheting projects, PLANTS, something yummy in the oven, a treat of brownies or something. Oh, and cats.

Rugs are so definitely a good one. Hedgie is very smart, and very intuitive like her beautiful mama.

I wish we were neighbors, Leah. We could have hours of homey time together.

What makes a house ultimately a home? Friends.

Thank God I brought my computer with me, LOL.

A great cup of coffee, and a great friend to enjoy it with.

Also, a cuddly pair of socks that a good friend knitted for you. My newest favorite addition.

And cats.

Megan said...


savannah said...



Candie Bracci said...


yes you're right.All those things are important.It's like that,there are some places where you feel at home it doesn't take much,a feeling,and depends on the people you are living with most of the time,for me.The best memories with my girlfriends in London and Maria.Not really nice in places I didn't feel like I was home:Cyprus and Scotland,but again,depends on cicumstances as well.Now,I can tell I'm not feeling really at home.No not really,something's missing,maybe I need more green around,a garden perhaps.

Have a nice day :)

Leah said...

Devil--I love stacked books too, we have plenty of that besides the ones in shelves. But I'm weird and have to have the stacks tidy...I also agree about the historical pieces. I love a mix of old and new things. And I just put two plants out on our fire escape outside the kitchen window; they seem to be thriving in the sun and rain of spring, and it gives us something nice to look at!


MJ--you do? I think it's awesome. The paper version is absolutely ubiquitous around NYC, and I love the cleverness of the ceramic design, right down to the little crease in the lip!

Nick--my dad used to say that books were his religion! I guess we have an element of that sort of worshipfulness at our house too. It's a neat idea.

Kylie--yes to all of those--I've been getting fresh flowers every week, they are so incredibly cheering. And heat--yes, that is an essential. Last winter we kept the heat well down to save money, and a chilly house is no fun at all...

Just Bob--so you feel about San Jose the way I felt about Queens? A pox on both places--well, not until you get out of there, then a pox!

Karen--I wish we were neighbors too! I can tell it would be wonderful. I guess we'll have to settle for being interwebs neighbors. I'm glad you've found a place that can be a home for you and your daughter! It's so wonderful to feel settled and comfortable, and then every little improvement you make or coziness you add is a little blessing--a home is a work in progress, too, I will add that!


Megan-- : ) I love emoticons, I can't help it.


Candie--I guess that in the end, home-i-ness is more of an ineffable, intangible feeling. I hope you can get yourself a little piece of green!

Ronda Laveen said...

You made me feel quite comfortable in your virtual home today. It was a pleasure to visit. Thanks for the invite. I think love makes house a home. And by what you've written, I can tell you very much think so too! Comforting and heartwarming.

Madame DeFarge said...

I think I want to come and live with you for a while. You'd never notice me. Honest.

This list sounds very like mine, with books, music, rugs and linens. I need lots of cushions. Can't stand room without cushions. An obsession really. And I have to have pictures everywhere. Preferably of ships.

Baino said...

Leah I agree except perhaps with evidence of a religious life. I don't have family photos and the like but items that I consider heirlooms and they're strangely comforting. Gathering places, absolutely and people, I love a house crowded with people even if it's the kid's friends. Great post . .would make a decent meme don't you think?

Anonymous said...


Megan said...

I agree with Baino, it would make a good meme.

Sorry if I sounded a bit snotty before. Green-eyed monster...

Nadia said...

I love the 'book' part. Great list.

Moot the Hoopla said...

What a great post! I love your sentiments..
it's a sense of belonging..
finding balance..

“Home is the place where,
when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.”
Robert Frost

I feel at home in my home and with my homies in da hood. I've been here since the mid 80s.

When I was 4 we moved from the city to my parent's ancestral small town in the country..
my Mother thought that I was too shy to go to school in the city. I felt safe out there..I could ride my bike around the entire four blocks of "downtown" without worrying about stranger danger...oh sure it was the 60s but my Mom was way ahead of the curve on things in the universe that could go wrong in the blink of an eye.
Anyway I felt safe and Mom didn't need to hover..

MJ said...

This is one of my all time fave Leah posts.

Marianna said...

I can't believe I have a picture of my mother's family sitting around a table, looking exactly like that lol

So true what you mention here Leah! I have felt that a few times in my life as well.


Leah said...

Ronda--thanks, and stop by anytime!

Mme. DeF.--by all means come to stay--we've even got the ships, as my husband is really into Patrick O'Brian and we both are enamored of the Geoff Hunt cover art...but you have to bring the throw pillows, there can never be enough of those...

Baino--it would make a good meme, but I can't think how. I'm thinking back, a propos of what you said, to how much my parents liked us to hang about with our friends when we were teens. I hope I'll do the same for Hedgehog...

mago--yes, love, most definitely! Funny I didn't mention it, right?

Megan--maybe I'll do a meme worries, I couldn't decide if you were feeling grumpy or just ribbing me, but it makes no never mind at all! : p see, an emoticon just for the occasion.

Nadia--books, the sina qua non! Thanks for stopping by!

Moot the Hoopla (that's brill, by the way)--you, too shy for the city? Interesting early tale. Thanks for the lovely comment, very much. I remember feeling safe riding our Hot Wheels back and forth in front of the apartment building when we were little...but I don't think it was entirely safe, being 1970s Brooklyn...

MJ--and that's one of my all-time fave compliments! xo

Marianna--I would love to see the pic of your family looking like my family! How funny.