Thursday, February 10, 2005

What Makes a House a Home?

Even though people use the two words interchangably, there is a big difference between a house and a home. To me, "house" indicates a physical structure. While it may have four walls and a roof, it doesn't have any charisma beyond that. Conversely, a "home" offers a sense of place in addition to giving shelter. You might live in many houses in the course of your life, but the homes are more rare.

In my four decades, I have been fortunate enough to have four homes. The first was a cookie cutter Chicago bungalow that earned the status of home by default, since it was the very first place to live that I ever knew. I suspect that the house you're raised in almost always takes on that "home" status.

When you're small, the world is still new, and everyday things are still fascinating. I grew up in the 60s and fell in love with our old-style "television" rotary dial clock (anyone remember those?) and our gaudy floor lamp with three plastic "flower" balls in blue, green, and orange. We had one of those groovy beaded hanging lamps, too, and a "Radiation King" color t.v. As a toddler, I discovered fascinating secrets, like the fact that you could spy on the basement laundry area by peering through a crack in the stairs.

We didn't have a finished basement, but we had a makeshift livingroom and kitchen set up in the basement for those miserably hot summer days. Home air conditioning was still in its infancy; we had a wall unit in the livingroom, but it was barely effective. To take advantage of its effects, the entire family had to crowd onto the sectional couch to sleep.

The next house I lived in never felt like home. It was my grandparents' old place, and by the time we moved in, it was becoming decidedly run down. They had both passed away, and my father had, too. My mother wasn't one for performing essential house repairs, so I lived for years with a non-functioning kitchen sink, leaking roof, and non-functioning electrical outlets. That was one house that I was happy to leave.

Finally I got old enough to move into my own apartment, and that was another home. It was a modest little studio that would be called a garage apartment in Celebration-speak. It was next to a one-car garage, which had once held two cars until half was taken over for living space, and there was a larger apartment upstairs. Even though the fixtures were circa 1940 and there were only two rooms (livingroom and kitchen, with a small shower-only bathroom off to the side), I loved it. Everything worked...what a luxury! It had lots of windows on the three outside walls to let in plenty of sunshine, and my landlord, who lived in the house in front, kept the yard blooming with flowers.

A neighborhood can contribute to that "home" feeling, and that was certainly true of my apartment's location. It was the sort of old-fashioned place where neighbors actually knew each other and looked out for each other. It wasn't uncommon for the UPS man to drop off packages at a random neighbor's house. Even if it was someone that you hadn't met yet, they would look you up in the phone book and give you a call or just wander over to your place. When lightning struck the transformer and plunged us all into darkness, my next door neighbor was over within minutes to make sure that I had candles, and the older couple on the other side kept an eye on my place because they knew I was a single woman living alone.

Unfortunately, I had to leave the apartment when I got married, as my husband already owned a townhouse. That place was about as far from a home as you could possibly get. From the moment I first walked in the door, I got a sense that a gory Stephen King novel had been acted out in there, and the restless spirits were still haunting it. I was firmly convinced that someday we would come home to find it burned to the ground. I was partly correct; while we were gone one weekend, the toilet tank cracked, and the resulting flood collapsed all the drywall on the first floor and left the basement filled with water. We had to move out for months while it was gutted and repaired. The workmen in the basement found that the wiring had been a fire trap, so getting that fixed was one minor good thing to come out of the whole mess.

We didn't stay there much longer, and our next place managed to qualify as a "home." It was a condo with a vaulted ceiling and huge triangle windows to flood the living room with sunshine. At the time we moved in, we had great neighbors. It wasn't as friendly as the area around my apartment, but it was better than the Townhome from Hell (I don't think I never met one of our next door neighbors there, although we heard rumors that he was a wife beater). At the condo, we never became best buddies with anyone, but at least we had more than a nodding acquaintance. I think that my neighbors enjoyed the fact that I borrowed their dogs for walks.

But over the years, things changed. All of our original neighbors moved away, and the new crowd wasn't particularly social. Worse than that, some of them couldn't accept the fact that they were living in a building with others, which requires some civility. Loud parties, pot smoking in the hallways, and visits from the police became common. I still loved our condo itself, but I wished I could somehow move it to a more hospitable environment.

Next up was our house in Celebration, and I felt like that was a home from Day One. Our little part of East Village lives up to the neighborly reputation. Sometimes I forget that; last night, my can opener broke while I was opening a can of asparagus. It was a bit late to go out and get a new one, so I just gave up and dug out some frozen veggies. The next day, as I was trying to decide what to prepare, I realized, "Hey, this is Celebration! I can actually run next door and borrow a can opener!" That might sound like a simple thing, but I can't imagine doing the same thing in the condo. Even if I tried, no one in the condo across the hall would hear me knocking between the loud music and the drunkeness.

What I didn't realize was that our new house hadn't quite achieved "home" status yet. It was a happy, sunny, comfortable place, but something was still missing. It was almost a bit too perfect, more like a model than a place where people lived. Personally, I enjoyed that, but I should have known that it wouldn't last. It's fine when there are only two adults, but toss three cats, a bird, and two fish into the mix and it will become a "home" very quickly.

Now I know that it truly is my home. As I type this, two of the cats are piled onto me, shedding vast quantities of hair onto my keyboard. The bird is currently sitting on his cage, but I'm sure he'll decide to fly over to the couch to see what's going on very soon. I don't know why, but one of the cats thinks it's the height of fun to leap at the doors, trying to see out the window. Unfortunately, he also likes to snag the curtains, and he's already put a nice hole in one of them. At least the fish are quiet and don't make much of a mess.

It drives me crazy to walk over cat litter, wielding a lint roller to battle the cat hair as I continually sweep up bird seed. But it's "crazy" in a good way because those are the kind of things that you do in your home. When we first moved into the condo, my balcony was always blooming with flowers and decorated for every holiday. As things went downhill, I lost all pride in it. The holiday decorations gathered dust, and the flower boxes sat empty. Now, it's so nice to live in a place that I can take pride in once again. I already have my Valentine decorations outside at Duloc Manor, and I'm prepared with light-up shamrocks for St. Patty's Day.

I don't know if I'll ever know any more houses and homes in my life, but if not, I think I've known enough to last a lifetime. I am content here in Celebration; even though it's 1200 miles from that Chicago bungalow where I was born, it's just as comfortable to me. In Celebration, and Florida, I'm home.

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