Our Homes Are Within Us . . . And Without Us


September 29, 1991|By ALICE STEINBACH

I was standing in the bathroom admiring the new, flowered wallpaper when suddenly the early morning sun fell in a wide, blinding slant through the window, lighting up the entire room.

Fascinated, I stood there surrounded by the sparkling white light and thought: How beautiful this room looks. It's like standing inside a diamond.

And then something odd happened. I began to walk from room to room in my house, looking at each one as though I'd never seen it before. And in the act of noticing old, familiar things in a new way, I experienced a deep sense of connection with this house that is my home.

Small things, usually taken for granted, began to rearrange themselves into new patterns of order and beauty: the oriental carpet floating across the polished shine of a dark, hardwood floor, the curved edge of a white marble table against a mimosa-colored wall, the arc of an outside tree branch framed like a photograph through the panes of a French window, the blue-and-white porcelain bowl filled with apples the color of pale emeralds.

I thought: How comfortable I feel here, in this house. And how much of my emotional life, as well as my physical life, inhabits this space.

Even now, looking around, I find proof of this everywhere. There, in the dining room, I see a son on the night of his high school graduation. He is surrounded by friends and family and his face is flushed with excitement.

And, there in the kitchen, I see a son whistling as he whips up one of his specialties, "pot luck salad."

I spot my mother, too -- sitting in an armchair, reading -- a pale yellow afghan wrapped around her legs.

I see the cats -- both past and present -- everywhere. Sunning themselves on windowsills. Curled up on the kitchen floor in rectangles of light. Leaping onto a rocking chair.

Scenes of friends and family gathered at the dining room table assemble in my head. I hear the sound of wine corks popping. Loud guitar music drifts down from a son's bedroom. I smell a turkey cooking in the oven and see a family decorating a Christmas tree in the living room.

And as I watch and listen, what emerges from all these memories of those who live here, or have lived here, is one profound truth: This is our small place in the world, this house. And we are safe here because this house is also our home. It's a place where we can dream and cry and laugh and make mistakes. We belong here.

Whenever we "inhabit" a house, writes architect Witold Rybczynski, we make it come "alive" by filling it "not only with our activities and physical possessions but also with our aspirations and dreams." And in this way, he continues, we "give identity to -- and are identified with -- our dwellings."

It is not a new idea to me -- that a house inhabits us as much as we inhabit it. I have only to close my eyes and I am back in the house of my childhood.

It is raining outside and I am lying in my old bed with the maple headboard, staring up at the ceiling, at the little stars painted there by my father. There's a white Motorola radio next to the bed and the "Let's Pretend" theme music is playing. Downstairs, my mother is in the kitchen fixing breakfast. I smell bacon.

I used to call this kind of thought a "memory." But now I know it is more than a memory. It's me. That house, and all that transpired there, lives in me just as I once lived in it.

It's a way of thinking that seems to run in the family.

For example, a letter arrived recently from a son in Japan. He writes:

"Next week will mark one year since I left home. And while remembering such a date may seem trivial to some, it has a lot of meaning for me. Although I am happy with my life here, I would give almost anything sometimes just to sit in our backyard for five or ten minutes. Or sleep in my room for one night. It's very easy to take the things we love for granted, isn't it?"

After reading this letter, I drifted into my son's bedroom. And sure enough he was there, still inhabiting his old room.

Just as his old room, I suspect, now inhabits him in a small Japanese village halfway round the world.

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