House is a common term referring to the structure where many of us dwell and call home. There is, of course, a difference between a house and a home, but a large number of us are able to combine those two concepts and live in a house that is our home. A house has no real emotional connection to us. It is merely a common dwelling type expressed in various forms around the world. What interests me is going that extra step beyond the existence of a structure we call a house to the place we call home.
Houses, where we have lived, are important in a multitude of ways. They are the repositories of our most cherished and joyous moments, and a reminder of where we endured our most excruciating pain and suffering. Houses are physical reminders that act like storage disks or memory sticks containing our past. All we need do is see a picture, walk into a room, hear a particular sound, or encounter a familiar smell. It’s as if the events that took place there spill out of the walls and seep up through the floors to reappear when we enter as if the house reached out and touched the right key or entered the right command in our head. These memories are always there. They never fade as long as we have the capacity to call them back to life.
Three houses I have lived in represent more than 85% of my life. I can go into my memories and visit a room in any one of them and be flooded with a multitude of images, events, smells, and sounds. There is the house where I grew up. It stands out because of the formative nature of the experiences I had there. There is the house we lived where our sons spent the formative part of their childhoods. Those memories are special as well. Finally, there is the house we live today, and it too is filled with many treasured moments preserved in pictures and recollections.
As a writer and memoirist, I’ve instructed others to use their memories of where they grew up to help them recall past events in helping them through the process of telling and recording their life stories. This technique became one of my favorite devices to help clients recover their memories. Once they reentered the memory of the house where they spent the most time growing up I asked them to imagine themselves standing in one of its rooms and recalling a thought of something that occurred there. The reminiscence was most often pleasant, but occasionally painful.
The house that is our home holds far more than our bodies and physical possessions. Those things constitute the least part of their value. What matters is the emotional investment we make that is part of our experience in that place.
I recall hearing my maternal grandmother reflect on the farmhouse where she grew up. She referred to it as the ‘Ole Stone Place’ and with good reason. The farmhouse and outbuildings were located between Wabash and Lagro, Indiana on the top of a hill that was part of an exposed ancient reef that lies on the West side of the Wabash River. Her memories of that house were anchored in near tragedy. As a young girl, she had an accident carrying a kerosene lamp, catching her clothes on fire. She panicked and ran. She ran outside and around the house twice and was headed for the orchard before her dad could catch her and smother the fire. She carried the scars of that day, physical and emotional the rest of her life.
To this day I remember every nook and cranny, every little space, in my grandparent’s house where I grew up. I remember hot summer nights and not being able to sleep, sticking my face up against the screen in the open window to feel and smell the cooler outside air and listening to the sounds of multitudes of insects in the night. I can still close my eyes and recall lying in bed listening to the wail of a steam locomotive’s whistle and the chug-chug-chug in the middle of the night. It was magic; it still is.
In the early 1950s this house, like many homes at that time, was heated with coal. When it got really cold, my grandfather made a hotter fire by adding more coal. A thermostat in the living room did little more than record the temperature. He kept the heat partially closed off in the bedrooms. Being a farmer at heart, he thought “Why put heat in a room where you sleep?” The small bedroom I shared with my older brother, probably about 8’ x 10’, was always cool. In the depth of winter, the window would frost, and I was fascinated by the patterns of the ice Jack Frost created. I would touch the ice painting and watch it slowly disappear as my small addition of heat caused melting that slowly spread across the window like a flood rising until the painting disappeared.
It was in this same room that I was introduced to gospel music and the blues. My brother and I had a small tabletop radio made of turquoise colored plastic. It was typically 1950s ugly. My brother was in junior high school by then and I was in the third or fourth grade. Rock and roll was beginning to take over the radio and my brother introduced me to a radio station in Nashville, Tennessee we could pick up at night. It seemed so foreign and far away lying in bed listening to the commercials for Randy’s Record Bar in Gallatin, Tennessee. As I listened clandestinely in bed before going to sleep I heard a mix of rock and roll, gospel and the blues. Rock ’n’ roll was growing in popularity, especially among teens and pre-teens like me, but little did I realize while listening to rock I was absorbing the blues at a deeper level and that influence has prevailed over the long term. Today the rock music I like best is influenced by or is an adaptation from the blues.
My grandparents lived in their house for over forty years. We moved there after my parents divorced. My grandparents raised their family there, my mother, aunts, and uncles. They helped raise two granddaughters, they also housed my grandmother’s nephew for a time, and then my brother and I arrived. I realize now my grandparents never had more than two or three years to themselves in over 50 years together, and most that time was spent in this little house.
Today I’m doubtful we have the same attachment to houses we live in as homes in the deeper sense. Surely the memories are still there to be retrieved, but the deeper sense of connection we once had seems missing. I, and I’m not alone, have the same sense of our diminished or at least different attitudes about our attachment to our neighborhoods and communities. When families lived in a home in a neighborhood and in a community for their whole lives, attitudes were different. Scott Russell Sanders touched on this in his book of essays, Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World.
Today our culture and society are more transient. We are not bound to place. We travel and work all over the planet. Our attachment to place has been loosened, but the need hasn’t been replaced, as yet, by an equally strong connection to the whole earth I suspect we need to live and sustain ourselves. Perhaps if we could grow a larger awareness of the earth as our ultimate house we call home it would change our perspective enough to alter the more reckless aspects of our behavior.
In a time when most traditional anchors for human society have been severed and abandoned because they were made and developed in a different time with different demands, we must find, develop, and build new ones. We require these to keep us firmly attached to what is most important while we explore and meet the new challenges lurking beyond the limits of our comprehension. We need a house built on firm foundations with strong walls filled with insulation to keep us warm and filled with love and all our tools we will need to solve problems and meet the inevitable challenges of an uncertain future.