Searching for a Good and Livable Box

Source Wikipedia; Photo shared under Creative Commons Attribution License. Photo by O. David Redwine
Alden B. Dow House. Source Wikipedia; Photo shared under Creative Commons Attribution License; Photo by O. David Redwine

When tuning in to various televised real estate and interior design shows, I’ve noticed something curious. Prospective buyers seem more likely than not to seek a house much like–if not the same–the house in which they were raised. They envision a style or interior design (for which they are willing to pay mightily) that mimics their parents’ place, one whose touches and functionality made their childhood habitat what it was. It seems to be a nostalgia-informed housing hunt.

But I become engaged in their earnest search and what details make them gasp in delight: wainscoting, a claw-foot tub, a family room opening to a patio with fire pit, a lilac bush by the bedroom or a grand entry staircase. If the house they grew up in was a ranch style, then that is what draws them; if it was in the country, then they seek acreage set apart from the hustle-bustle.

I see that a woman cannot bear the most innocuous wallpaper as their mother would not have abided such patterned domination of space. Another person groans when he sees a separate, narrow formal dining room. It turns out he grew up eating meals in a tighter kitchen nook but wants that for his kids. I have felt perplexed when someone walked into a perfectly nice kitchen and states it is awful and has to go. And then explains that it must reflect more the feel of her great aunt’s kitchen where she baked cookies as a child. Another man had a big requirement. No separate bathroom (and it had to be more than one) for guests? Impossible. He could not imagine sharing the same bathroom; he grew up with three for three people and a half bath for visitors. I wondered if the guests had to come and go by the back door, too. Another interesting show involved a woman who had inherited her mother’s entryway light fixture. She based her interest in a house by the foyer, the effect that light would create. If it didn’t meet that specification, the rest of the house wasn’t seen.

One after another, house buyers appear to lean toward something much like what they knew growing up. Why, I wonder, don’t more people–most people–want to live in a house that reflects their own adult, unique aesthetic? Why wouldn’t they have long ago come to their separate conclusions about comfort and usefulness regarding current needs? It’s peculiar to me that someone would have a quarter to a half million dollars to spend (or more) and want to use that amount to occupy a house that resembles one they were in ten, twenty or thirty years ago.

“To each their own,” I know. And I am compatible with that saying. That’s part of the reason I watch those shows: I enjoy briefly learning about interesting strangers (of course, all are interesting)  and their tastes, going along on their search and trying to guess their choices. I freely admit I am a “home and garden” show nut.

My husband and I don’t now live in a house, nor do we live in a condo, duplex, houseboat, RV or mobile home. We lease a simple but spacious city apartment in an established neighborhood we have always admired and yet love. We may have to move after over many years, as developers are encroaching more each day. Grand old houses are coming down while places like our small building are being converted into far pricier abodes. Thus far we haven’t found anything better for what we want to pay so may stay put until we are dragged out weeping and kicking our feet. I was almost tempted by a floating home on the fabled Columbia River but decided it was too close to a busy interstate bridge.

The last detached house was a two-story with four bedrooms; the ones before, mostly the same. We had five children to raise up years ago; it was lucky four were girls so they could bunk together as needed. My son was the only one to snag his own room after age 6. So it’s been awhile since I went on a serious house hunt. That’s one reason I find pleasure in viewing other far-flung houses for sale–vicariously enjoying the sights and excitement.

I also have a passion for architecture–residential and commercial–of a wide, even adventuresome variety. (Frank Gehry, anyone? Gaudi?–and so many more.) So when I observe individuals strolling through real estate, disappointment drawn upon their faces because they’re not seeing enough that reminds them of “good old days”–well, I wonder over it. Why do they not want more variety, why haven’t they developed their own style without moldering prompts from a distant past?

Lest I am misunderstood, I have nothing against fondly recalling one’s family home. I liked my childhood house just fine. My parents bought their place in the Northern Midwest fast when Dad got a good new position, Music Education Coordinator for the public school system of a flourishing small city. I was one year old and my–coincidentally, four–siblings were quite a bit older. And more impacted by moving. The old house in another state had had a mini-orchard surrounding it as they told it, and the house had a sweet breezeway, plenty of room. And was on a big corner lot. It may have been a bit ramshackle from my parent’s more realistic account but I recalled very little of it but the breezeway, for some reason. I remember being held in one arm while the other one wielded an iron, the fresh scent of warm, smoothed cotton wafting up, mixing with green grass smells.

They found us a newer if smaller bungalow on a wide, busy street and painted it yellow with turquoise trim. It had three bedrooms, one bath but was shored up by pretty front and back yards and a smaller (wide enough) side yard in which to romp, handsome deciduous trees to climb and swing from and limbs one might long daydream. It had a wide front porch, uncovered, with a cement stool built into each corner. A sprawling tree nursery was right right behind us giving it a mildly country feel from the back.

Our Michigan place overlooked a huge lot that was an entire glorious garden belonging to the neighbor  just south of our house. I was warned that the owner, as fine a gardener as his wife, was akin to Mr. McGregor from The Tale of Peter Rabbit. That didn’t deter me from feeling I had part ownership by virtue of being only a single wire fence apart, his copious flowers and rhubarb hanging over it on our side, tantalizing me. I happily observed and trespassed from time to time, as did we all. I think I may have stolen strawberries. Though old Mr. Benfer kept a hawk eye on our rambunctious family (they had a grown daughter; we never saw her)–those basketballs and baseballs, the running about, the screeches!–he was never mean to me. His wife eventually if infrequently, shared some produce and flowers, perhaps feeling a bit sorry for my mother. Erroneously. I can say that ever-changing, bountiful scene was one of the best things about our house even though it wasn’t ours.

But ours was an unremarkable house in form. It had been built around 1930; the rooms were not overly large. There was a good if somewhat dank basement we did remodel into a partial recreation room for teen-aged parties. My father’s musical instrument repair workshop–where he also fixed small household appliances–was in one corner. On the second floor, three girls shared one bedroom, two boys another. We all shared a bathroom. My parents took over what would later become the main floor TV room/den. I had a room of my own by the time I was thirteen, as the other four had gone off to various colleges. It was paradise having so much space and relative quietness.

There was a dining room where a large, leafed table stood, often covered in tablecloths of various colors and according to occasion, topped by a vase of flowers or other attractive decor. It was one of my favorite rooms, not mainly because of meals. It housed a pretty blonde buffet with many drawers full of lovely things, a stereo system in a sturdy wood cabinet against a wall, and a china and crystal cabinet. The connecting living room was small for our family but nonetheless the corner was occupied by a baby grand piano. We packed in a lot of folks for music making or simply visits.

The rounded front door could have been a turnstile, as there never ceased the coming and going of people. Family, yes, but also music students and their parents, customers of Mom’s seamstress/millinery side-business (she was also a teacher), many friends of my parents, our own buddies. It seemed the doorbell was non-stop ringing amidst dramatic swells of a symphony and a chorus of chattering voices. And the one wall phone ringing. So many people called my father, alone, (not to mentions the rest of us) that I was the unofficial secretary by age twelve–messages being handwritten and tacked on the kitchen bulletin board for his later review. We had a lot going on those years, as busy families do. The lifestyle within the house was active, artistic and made orderly if strict with rules and etiquette. It overflowed with interests and ideas. Perhaps we were a tad squashed, though I didn’t miss privacy as a child. We would have benefited from even a half- bathroom more, though, particularly mornings as we clamored about, preparing for our day.

However, though good memories (and some not good) may take me back to those four walls, to street and yard, I have never longed for a house like it. I do find myself writing about it because the stories it generates hold some merit or interest–at least for myself. The last time I saw it, it was unrecognizable. My mother had passed away after my father. She hadn’t lived there for some years. The two-story bright bungalow was covered in boring taupe siding and the huge maple in front was gone; overgrown juniper bushes on either side of the wide front porch (where I’d liked to hide) were replaced by fussy little plants. I couldn’t see the towering irises alongside the house although it was spring when Mom died. It was no longer our house; someone had other ideas of what was acceptable, good.

I had a different vision altogether from my parents’. I began to draw houses as a youth, sketching different designs, depicting settings that called to me–usually nature’s acreage. I was not all that talented at drawing but no matter, I needed to provide ideas a visual form. My house visions have run more to higher ceilings, light-filled spaces, lots of windows, skylights. Airy. Stone, glass and redwood set among trees on a lake, if my greatest house dream was fulfilled. Modern or even more contemporary styles have been preferred. But also Craftsman homes, and perhaps a meticulously turned out Victorian. I wouldn’t turn down a snug cottage by a rushing creek or a minor Spanish or Italian villa by the sea, however.

I suspect I was influenced by many striking modern homes in my childhood city, the birthplace of Alden B. Dow. He was the son of the founder of Dow Chemical Company and an apprentice of the famed Frank Lloyd Wright. Dow gave his own personal acreage with awe-inspiring gardens to the city, such a joy to wander through. I loved studying such daring, stripped down, sleek buildings and seeing the interiors. A waterfall in a house! A tree trunk rising up in an entryway! Indeed, perhaps this was a strong imprint from my childhood, after all, as much an influence as the imprints left on the TV home buyers’ psyches.

A few times as an adult I’ve lived in homes I felt significant appreciation and affection for; others served their purpose well enough and for that I was grateful. A main requirement was that it have a safe, walkable neighborhood or accessible countryside. Another was that it included yard enough for sitting and grilling, also playing. A small vegetable garden space just in case. I have always liked seeing what is happening around me, so a good view is helpful even if from a balcony or a small porch. I was thankful for every habitat we had–we moved a lot due to my husband’s work–and feel perhaps four or five were winners in the best ways.

I feel appreciation for housing, always, because I have also been very “down on my luck”. I have experienced loss of security, had no money and at times could not ask for or receive family help. Some places I had to live were those which I did not previously imagine bearing, and was briefly on the street. You find out what essential needs are. Wants are irrelevant. You get by somehow. When I was offered a place after that rough time around age twenty and it had good walls and running water, I was thrilled. So relieved. It was a renovated chicken coop and I shared it with another. There was just room enough to breathe and get from  one spot to another; you had to bend down in most spots due to the low and slanting roof. It’s humbling to discover what you can get by with, how little can satisfy.

We all look for a place that fulfills basic criteria to call our own–with a heartfelt expectation of more. My parents had a house that met our needs enough. Still, my mother had her eye on a sprawling brick ranch-style house after I was the only child at home. The neighborhood was more upscale, yards elegant, streets wider. It was also quieter just three blocks away, the distance between what we had and what she longed for. But my father said it was not to be. They had low house payments and even though his career had taken off, he was very prudent with his money, even a penny-pincher. I know Mom was very disappointed, though I never heard them argue. Nor did she carry on about it. She had been raised on a farm and ended up in a finer place already. She had an unusual feel for eye-catching design and enduring function; she valued beauty so made our house much lovelier than it might have originally been. But I can imagine how happy she would have been in the other house. It seemed a manifestation of her unique dream–“no three flights of stairs!” she was overheard saying and “less dirt and dust from a noisy street!” She would have added her deft touch to all. She clearly did not miss living on a farm or in the country.

The house seekers on television have looked at dozens, even hundreds of houses by the time we see them. It naturally would be overwhelming at moments. They can appear close to disillusionment and compromise more as time goes by. They sometimes give up the old hope of what’s most familiar. Reassuring. Safer. The memory of childhood homes fade for many as they come down to the wire and must decide where to stake a new claim.

Who am I to say that someone may not be so risk taking? That they are stuck on repeat regarding the housing experience? What makes you happy is yours to acquire or invent, then share. Establishing a new base for one’s life takes trial and error, time and money–elbow grease with long days and nights. But eventually one morning you wake up, turn on kettle or coffee pot and rustle up loved ones. You move into the day and gather momentum. And then you realize the place you are is home because of  the people of treasures about you, because of inspiration brought to fruition–and also the experiences that await you. It’s making a life in one sort of box or another when it comes right down to it and the structure that surrounds you is made of sturdy, well-chosen chosen walls–in the best of times. The lives lived within it are always one of a kind. Wherever you end up, I hope you embrace its inherent hominess. Better yet, refashion things so the place you reside becomes your sanctuary, a good spot to grow more whole.

10 thoughts on “Searching for a Good and Livable Box

  1. What at wonderful post. Love the ending ….refashion things so the place you reside becomes your sanctuary, a good spot to grow more whole. That is absolutely my belief. Your home should be a sanctuary. Thank you.

  2. This is an interesting post and not something I’ve ever thought about before.(I saw a comment you posted in Derrick Knight’s blog, by the way). I’m very different from the people in those programmes, and in fact, I wonder if it’s because I’m a Brit in the UK. Most people here when they buy a new house can’t wait to change it from how it looked when they bought it to how they would love it to be, and I’m not sure that replicating elements of their parents’ house even comes into it. Usually, here, people move because they need space for their kids to grow or they need to downsize because they’re gettoing older .

    I’ve lived in/owned two houses since leaving home, neither even remotely like my parents’ house where I grew up . I hated my family home and wouldn’t want to replicate it. When my husband and I first came to see what became our current house, we were barely even aware of the house, but were awe struck by the garden (yard) and the surrounding countryside and that is what attracted us. The house is also beautiful and, surprisingly, we left most of the decor as it was as, while we wouldn’t have chosen it, it is not unpleasant.

    By the way, as an aside, the commenter ‘berolahragamatras4’ is a spammer whose short (apparently complimentary) comments appear in many blogs. You might want to go to your comments section on your dashboard and mark it as spam.

    1. I appreciate your eloquent commentary, Val. It is always interesting to hear what folks from other parts of the world experience. I suspect most do move and seek new housing for the same reasons you note. We had to move for job transfers/new positions over the last 3-4 decades, and that is not uncommon in the US. Likely people do redecorate the homes even though it is in the architectural style of childhood homes–hard to know as there is no follow-up.
      I can imagine if you live anywhere near Derrick’s town that your garden and area is truly breathtaking. But regardless, if you’ve found your paradise, how fortunate you are! I am so pleased for you and others who manage to do so. We manage with our spot due to work and typically high but lately skyrocketing prices in our favored areas. We all make a home wherever we are, in the end. Regards.
      (And thanks for the heads up on the spammer.)

      1. I know the general area Derrick lives in but am a long, long way away. He’s in South England, I’m in mid-Wales. Both in the UK but separate countries. Thanks for your reply to my comment, nice to hear from you.

  3. What makes you happy is yours to acquire or invent, then share. Establishing a new base for one’s life takes trial and error, time and money–elbow grease with long days and nights.

    Well put! Lovely, thoughtful post.

    While I’m fond of the home I grew up in — where my parents still live — it was never a place I could see myself living as an adult (both the space itself and the neighborhood). When I was looking for my first home five years ago, I was drawn to modern, industrial-style lofts in the city, which is what I eventually found and bought. Now, it seems what I want has changed — a small bungalow in the country. It’s been interesting seeing how this journey for a home has evolved, and always interesting watching the journeys of strangers on TV!

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