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.