Playing home

When I was a child, we played “paths” in the woods between my cousins’ house and my grandmother’s cottage out in the country. That is, we cleared away some of the dense thatch of maple leaves on the ground, creating a walkway between the skinny self-seeded saplings. Each of us children created a small space off the walkway for a home, decorating our “houses” with found bits of lumber, loose bricks, stones from the stream down the hill, and sticks stripped of bark. As neighbors in a community that smelled of turned earth, leaf litter, and peeled bark, we visited one another, admired each other’s decorating skills (my sister’s houses were particularly well put-together), and conducted an imaginary economy. It was like playing with dollhouses, except more like The Boxcar Children with their cracked teacup and their abandoned railway car.

Later, when I was fifteen, I yearned for my own home with a fierce misery beyond assuaging. My family lived in a very big house, and I had my own room, but I didn’t want our house, which was a miserable place. My mother did a very kind thing for my fifteenth birthday: she gave me a set of china plates, some flatware, two big aluminum pots, and two immense stainless steel kitchen spoons. I took it all with me when I moved into my own apartment much later on, and it wasn’t until this year that I finally gave away the last piece of the set, the enormous spoons, which I never actually used.

Eventually I became a sort of adult, married, and owned houses of my own, but I still dreamed of something else. I found that “something else” in New York City thirteen years ago. I was attending a workshop at Teachers College, with cheap lodgings in Union Theological Seminary. It was not a hotel room. American hotel rooms are oppressive, with vast beds, with monstrous televisions, and with bed linens that are ludicrously puffy, and heavy enough to smother. The room at the seminary was more like a European one, with low twin beds, cheap coverlets, a big window, a small refrigerator, and a few drawers. In that room in the city, I felt as if I was in heaven. I was by myself, free to leave and return whenever I wanted, and I could go out to a coffee shop or bookstore without having to tell anyone where I was going.

I carried away with me that image of a little room, furnished with small necessities, where I could be myself, by myself. Now I was happily married, with a grown kid and an interesting career, mind you, but I yearned for that imaginary space as I suppose some little girls yearn for a three-story Victorian dollhouse with wallpaper.

It wasn’t exactly the “tiny house” image that was captivating me. The tiny houses in the magazines and websites look cramped to me, and I could too easily envisage descending into clutter. No, my dream of a little house wasn’t about smallness. It was partly about being alone and independent, but it wasn’t entirely about that, either. I wasn’t sure what made it so compelling.

And then my husband fell ill. He had refused adamantly for years to get a colonoscopy, but finally went along when he was having too much gastric distress, and by then he had stage four colon cancer. The first year of his treatment was fine, but as he got sicker and sicker, the image of my “little house” kept returning like a fever dream. I took long walks, and as I walked, I imagined where I would buy my little house, and what I would do to it before I moved in. I painted its interior walls, had the floors stripped, hung curtains, and put potted plants in the back yard.

And then I would come home to my own real three-story row home with a hospital bed on its first floor, and with piles and piles of medical supplies everywhere, and with my increasingly smaller husband sitting propped up on his pillows, gaunt and a little confused, watching the Phillies get to the World Series and talking to his friends. I would dive back into the intolerable and oppressive tumult of being a caregiver.

When he died I got busy getting rid of everything in the house that I didn’t need any more. I kept taking things out for over a year, ejecting all the unnecessary inventory, the extra tools, the things I didn’t use and didn’t need. Apparently that was how I grieve. But when I finished decluttering, I kept going, because it turned out even when everything was organized and tidy, there was even more I didn’t need. I was thinking about my little house, and how I could fit into it, you see.

Last night, I was lying reading on my sofa with the cat tucked on the windowsill next to me, and I put my book down and looked around at my imperfect home. My kitchen, which the previous owner renovated hastily, has cracks in the tile, but contains all the food and dishes I actually need. The dining table is awkwardly positioned because the first floor is a strange shape; the half-bath we put in the first floor takes up too much space.

I got up and looked around the house, turning on the lights. My basement walls are crumbly, but the basement is dry and everything in it is something I am storing for a good reason. My clothes closet is only half full, and contains only clothes I actually wear. My bedroom has a bed in it, and a lamp, and a couple of nightstands. My third floor study is lined with mostly empty shelves, because I got rid of whatever I didn’t actually use, and the desk is cheap and battered. But in my childhood, I learned that a piece of scrap lumber makes a perfectly adequate bench, if you prop it on a few bricks and if you sit carefully.

My home isn’t perfect, but that little room in the seminary was far from perfect. I think what is making me so happy right now is that my actual home is completely provisional. It’s imaginary. It’s a clearing in the woods, it has everything I need, and I am pretending to live in it. If everything is temporary and imaginary, it turns out I have a most excellent life. I don’t think I need to move after all.

4 thoughts on “Playing home

    1. DMT says:

      Thanks. It’s the image I started with, and then I had to figure out how the heck I got there 🙂 I think I should write a brief outline more often before I write.

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