Thursday, October 15, 2009

Interlude continues

(February 2010)
I'll be back...eventually because home is always on my mind. 

Been reading books about animals and wilderness and think this has to do with my own yearnings around what I want in a home.

Highly recommend these books:

The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert.  
Alex and Me by Dr. Irene Pepperberg
The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony
The Good Good Pig by Sy Montgomery

What have you been reading that relates to or has influenced your thoughts about where you live?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Housekeeping (not what you think)

Housekeeping, a novel 

--Not a book about a woman sweeping her kitchen floor.  It is one of the most haunting, amazing, astonishing novels I have ever read. Yet, oddly, I resisted reading it for years because I was put off by the title.

So, don’t you get put off by it.  It’s not what you think.

This novel has everything to do with blurring the boundary that divides our sense of outside and inside, exterior and interior, home and homelessness.  It bends the boundaries of normalcy in terms of how we define home and what evokes our feelings of home.   I don’t want to say more than this because if you haven’t read this book, you must.

You must.

One more thing.  As many of you already know, this book came out in the 1980s.What you don’t know is that I was a graduate student at Brown University, in the creative writing department.  While I was there, one of our graduates came back to give a reading from her debut novel.

Guess who?

Marilynne Robinson.  Her novel was called, Housekeeping, and it was rocking the literary world (but I couldn't get past my resistance to the title). 

At the reception, I remember how shy Marilynne was.  She stood at the edge of the crowds, politely nodding when people went up to her to congratulate her on her success. She seemed exceedingly introverted, her head and body almost an afterthought, meaning she didn’t reveal much in her facial expressions or body movements.

I am a fast reader and often I’ll read in chunks of paragraphs or half pages, but this book demanded that I read it sentence by sentence.  Robinson’s words conjured up ghosts that hovered over the pages.  I swear to God I felt strange, intangible spirits rising out of this book.

Let me know if you experienced these eerie sensations, too.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sequatchie Cove Farm

On my travels this summer, I spent a week at Sequatchie Cove Farm in Tennessee. From Boston, where I live, it takes twenty-two hours to drive there. I like that it takes time and effort, and a measure of discomfort to arrive at this beautiful, sequestered place. The 300-acre farm is ringed by the Cumberland Plateau and embraced by thousands of acres of forest. Little Sequatchie River, a cold stretch of water, runs through the woods beyond the vegetable fields and small meadows where the cows graze.

As I cross multiple state lines, and head south to the farm, I undergo a process of shedding. I leave behind my urban sounds and sights—neighbors walking their dogs on leashes, brownstones lining asphalt sidewalks, car horns and trolley bells dinging.

After two days in an air-conditioned car, speeding at 75 miles an hour, I enter a world that is covered with grass, acres of blueberry bushes, tomato plants, twigs, pebbles, river rocks, and sleeping dogs—unleashed—under the shade of big-leaf magnolias, pine and oak trees. My brother and sister-in-law’s house is made of river stone and wood. Giant slabs of granite steps lead to their front porch.

At the farm, my body shifts to a different pattern of movement and perceiving. My eyes relax, taking in long views of sky and mountains, and micro-views of honey bees. I breathe in dust and the smell of hay, cow pies, wood and leaves. Internal mechanisms that I’ve forgotten open up inside. My sense of time changes. In fact, time doesn’t seem to matter much. I do a lot of drifting and strolling.

At night, I lie on top of my bed sheets, floating on a mattress of darkness, the moist air bathing me in layers of heat. No air-conditioning here. The boundary that separates inside from out disappears. I am suspended in a universal dream. Moonlight casts shadows across fences and trees, and stirs up energy I didn’t know I harbored in my arms and legs. I’m buzzing in this state. I can’t fall asleep. I’m too busy being. The sound of cicadas and crickets is deafening, louder than Beethoven’s ninth symphony. Actually, it’s more than sound. It’s vibrations pulsing and ringing throughout the cove until everything—cows, pigs, dogs, chickens, cats, trees, beds and me—is throbbing like a single, supernatural heart.

At 4:30 in the morning, the rooster breaks this unified rhythm, calling out in ragged jerky notes. Its shout rips apart the night sky to let in glimmers of sunlight. I try to catch one more hour of sleep but am too excited. By 6 a.m. I’m dressed and walking down the path to my brother-in-law’s house fifty yards away for a cup of coffee. The cicadas have stopped their noise. In the silence, I hear my sneakers flicking through blades of dew soaked grass.

The cows are awake too. They see me moving across the field. I feel like a figment of their imagination, an odd figure whose purpose to them is unknown. As I stand in the kitchen, waiting for the French press to brew my coffee, the fields take on their daytime shapes. Colors begin to reappear: green and grey. Morning clouds slide away into the mountainside.

My time at Sequatchie Farm Cove has taught me that paradise is not bound to heaven. I can find pieces of it right here on Earth, where I am.

Where do you go to break up old patterns of living?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Stranger at Home


I am back from a month on the road. I didn’t say back home. Just back. I have that feeling of discombobulation. Where I live looks strange and dusty and vacant. Nothing has changed except that several bookcase shelves in my office fell off their tracks causing the books to tilt right. It’s as if an energy force got loose in my absence, some invisible house bear that started rummaging. For what? The missing me?

I’m sort of here, but not really.

In the last month, I imbibed the spirit of other people’s homes and I’m still wrapped up in those vectors of other places. Coming back, I recognize every room, every vase, chair and painting on the wall, yet I feel odd, alienated from these familiar objects. I know I put them there but that was me before I left, and now that I’m back, I’m not the same.

And the dining room knows it. It looks lifeless and removed from me. Nothing has been rearranged, yet the tabletop isn’t humming with the previous night’s conversation. No one has eaten there for weeks. The air knows it, too. It smells stale, devoid of scents and seasonings. In fact, all the rooms have a shuttered up feeling. At what point, I wonder, does the house shift from waiting for its owner to return to succumbing to certified vacancy?

Who am I? Where am I? And how do I start to make my home feel like mine again?

Yesterday, my first day back, I took a nap on the living room couch. That put some body heat into the cold cushions, but a few hours later, I was on the internet researching homes for sale in another state. --Oh, there she goes again. She’s off on a fantasy to find something better, someplace that’s far away from where she is now, her traveling self unable to settle down and be still.

I took out the vacuum cleaner to vent my restlessness. I attacked the foyer rug and tried not to be critical of my office. But it was messy: black cat hairs clumped in the weave of the off-white rug. Soon, the noise of the vacuum buzzed the air and sent vibrations through the floors reawakening them as I made my way across the dormant rooms.

I’d been gone. I felt different. I was changed by my travels. I needed to stir this soup called home, mix in remnants of my old life with the elixir of renewal to create something altered. I was ambivalent, frantic, happy, uncertain, churning with the fact that I had returned. I needed to add those fresh ingredients of what I saw, tasted, talked about, smelled; my arm jabbing back and forth, pushing and pulling the vacuum hose like a spoon in a big pot of stew.

How do you feel about your home after you’ve been away on a long trip? Relieved? Happy? Disappointed? All of these things?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Modern inconveniences

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, translated by Anne Born.

This week I'd like to recommend a novel that my friend and novelist Jennifer Jefferson recommended after reading my post about the stone house without electricity. I haven't read this book but I'm intrigued. Here's what Jennifer said about Out Stealing Horses: "A 67-year old Norwegian man moves to a cabin with no modern conveniences. It's an amazing book about home and family."

The novel was a top ten pick of the year by The New York Times Book Review.

I'm going to give it a whirl and hope you will, too. Let me know what you think. Even if you read it months from now, come back and leave a comment here. My email alerts me to your responses.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

West Virginia Stone House

1700 WV house 015 I love staying in friends' homes when I travel. It's a chance to spend time that is both catching up and being a part of the life they live at that moment. From morning coffee routines to making dinner together to sharing bathrooms and hallways, I literally enter their shells, breathe their air, hear the sounds they live with. Going into someone else's shell allows me to reflect, once again, on my own lifestyle and the house I live in now. How are my friends' routines different or the same? What fresh perspective will I bring home with me? Will I make my coffee differently or bake those rolls that my friend's mother baked us?1700 WV house 007

In West Virginia, I stayed in a small town of Romney. It's in the Appalachian mountains. My friend grew up in the house where I slept for 3 nights. His sons grew up there, too. The house is a big L-shaped brick house that still has a bullet hole from a civil war scuffle. In their backyard, a herd of deer appear at dusk. At night, the stars are so bright, layers of glittering chandeliers float above me like holograms. The Milky Way is painted across the great arch of our galaxy. I can see the curve! A screech owl calls from down the holler (that's West Virginian for "hollow"). In the city, where I live, the stars look faded and forgotten in comparison.

1700 WV house 002 About a mile down the road from my friend's house, his uncle, Dan Wagoner, a well-known dancer who had a dance company in NYC for more than 20 years, spends the summer in a stone house built in 1789. Dan still teaches dance at a university in Florida during the school year, but chooses to return to his childhood roots every summer to a place that has no electricity or running water.

1700 WV house 013 In this stone house, once owned by Dutch slave owners, Dan has released himself from the modern world. He says "it takes about 10 days for an inner shift to occur," before he slows to a different pace and way of thinking. He draws his water from an outside pump, and takes baths in his clawfoot tub under a tree. At night, the porch is illuminated by candles, and moonlight hovering over the distant hills.

1700 WV house 012 "Ten days for an inner shift to occur." I keep thinking about that phrase. How many of us give ourselves permission to make an inner shift? Or give ourselves ten days to let any kind of change happen?

1700 WV house 005 In this stone house, which my friend has helped restore over many years, Dan has created a way of being, a sensibility. I admire his courage, his ability to do this.

Could I do it? There's something inside me that wants to try and something else that is afraid. What would happen to me if I were to live in a house without electricity for two months? Would I want to return to the city or would I disappear? Become unknown or forgotten? Or would I uncover some sort of magic, another world that has been waiting for me?

1700 WV house 003 How do you think you would handle living in place like this? If you're a country person, please tell me your thoughts. If you've lived in cities most of your life as I have, I want to hear from you, too.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Habit of Being

I love the title of this book. It says so much about what I'm reaching for in my search for a home. As I scramble from house to house, place to place, I'm really striving to develop a habit of being, a way of finding my truest center--a way of living that feels right.

This book of letters reveals the life of one of my favorite writers, Flannery O'Connor. Flannery grew up in the South (Georgia), and since I'm traveling through Southern states on a visit to see my husband's family, it seemed a good excuse to recommend this book and her work in general.

Flannery returned home to Georgia to live and fend off what proved to be a fatal illness: Lupus. She wrote astonishing stories in her short life. I believe she was 39 when she died.

Despite our numerous differences--she's from the South, I'm from the North; she lived in a rural town, I grew up close to a big city; she was a serious Catholic, I'm a questioning, uncertain Jew; I feel connected to her because I, too, had a serious blood condition and lived for several years under the threat of death.

She died. I'm still here, yet I continue to marvel at how she found strength and home in her faith.

Monday, August 10, 2009

What’s in Your Refrigerator?

(A quick note before I begin today's post. I'm traveling thru VT and will be checking in on your comments tomorrow. Internet access is spotty but I'll be sure to respond to your comments as soon as I can. I'm hoping to get my pics up tomorrow as well. Looking forward to your thoughts. Thanks--Jessica)

I’m fascinated by food and how it influences our experience of home. What was your family’s relationship to food? Was your cupboard overflowing or half-empty? What kind of food did your family keep in the refrigerator? Was food accessible?

In our kitchen on 14 Scarsdale Road, we had an open door policy. By this I mean, anyone at anytime could go into the refrigerator for something to eat. I liked it best when my friends felt comfortable enough to open the refrigerator without asking me.

“Sure. Go ahead. Help yourself.”

We had a standard set of items in our refrigerator: pink cans of diet cola (Tab), a bottle of sauerkraut tucked in the refrigerator side door (when all the good stuff was gone, I’d resort to eating this crunchy sweet, pickled shredded cabbage). In the salad bin—iceberg lettuce, a tomato, half a cucumber, a package of carrots, celery stalks. I could depend upon finding sliced American cheese individually wrapped in cellophane, a large jar of Hellman’s mayonnaise, and smaller jars of gherkin pickles and strawberry jam. We had eggs, of course, and fruit.

In the summer, Mom bought fresh fruit from a produce truck that came to our street once a week. She chose ripened plums, black cherries that she washed and kept in a bowl, peaches, cantaloupes, honeydew and watermelon. In the freezer, no matter what season, I could always find a box of fudgicles, Swanson TV dinners (sliced turkey with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and peas), and frozen hamburger patties.

Our family loved leftovers. Anything wrapped in tin foil was a promise of something delicious from last night’s dinner. More typically, leftovers didn’t make it to the next day. Someone would nab the last piece of broiled chicken and eat it for a snack before bed.

My mother did her big shop once a week, packing the station wagon with brown bags stuffed with groceries. I loved the sound and smell of those bags as we carried them from the car, hugging them up the steps to the back kitchen door, and plunking them down, one by one, on the white countertops. The spotless kitchen became festive as we unloaded cans of tuna and tomato sauce, peas, soups, loaves of bread, cake mixes, Oriole cookies, graham crackers, sugar, flour, meats, milk, and our favorite cereals (Frosted Flakes, Sugar Pops). These items with their multi-colored labels filled the room with fresh, sweet and enticing smells.

“There!” my mother would exclaim. “Don’t tell me we don’t have anything to eat in this house.”

I learned that this same open door policy didn’t preside in every home. When I played with my next door neighbor’s daughter (the family with the instant lawn), we were not allowed to touch their refrigerator. It represented a danger zone that provoked a reprimand if we dared to approach it. Countless days and nights I played at my neighbor’s house; yet I had no idea what they stored in their refrigerator. Maybe it was the mother’s way of keeping her overweight daughter away from food. I don’t know. I guess I learned to accept it.

During the school year, we ate dinner every weeknight in the dining room. The table was covered in a white or blue cloth, and set by one of the girls (me or my two older sisters). Naturally, we had a number of favorite dishes. But, in our house, at the top of the food A-list, tuna casserole ruled. Mom made it about once every ten days. For this dish, she used white Bumblebee tuna in oil that she flaked into a bowl. She added a can of LeSeur peas, a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, and tossed all the ingredients together with a box of cooked egg noodles. She topped it with potato chip crumbs, then baked it in the oven for 30 or so minutes until it was steaming hot.

Let me tell you, when the maid placed that yellow casserole bowl onto a hot plate next to my mother, and my mother picked up the big serving spoon, we sat up taller, anticipating a queen’s royal meal. And this was a family that ate baked chicken, hamburger, steak, fish, London broil, even cheese soufflĂ©.

One summer afternoon when I was about twelve, the next-door neighbor’s mother, the one with the closed refrigerator door policy, stopped by. I was in the kitchen.

“I don’t have anything for dinner,” she said. “How do you make that casserole you love? I need something easy, something quick.” She was a pretty woman who wore crimson lipstick. She stood in the middle of the room, waiting.

“It’s really easy. All you need is a can of peas—“

“I don’t have any peas. Never mind.” She made a motion to leave. She had lively, dark eyes, a trim figure, and spoke in a condescending way, annunciating her words with a clipped flair as if she expected attention (and got it), yet I liked her. She let me call her by her first name.

“Samantha, Wait! I’m sure we do.” I hurried to the cupboard, anxious and excited about sharing my favorite meal. “See?” I handed her a can of LeSeur peas.

“Okay. Now what?” She attacked the word, what.

“One can of tuna. White tuna. Do you have cream of mushroom soup?” Then I explained about the cooked noodles.

“Okay. That’s it? I’ll try it,” she said. “This better be good.” Off she went out the front door with an entertainer’s flourish.

“You’re gonna love it, Samantha!” I called to her.

The next day, she didn’t hurry over raving, full of thanks and gratitude. Maybe she decided not to make it. The day after, I saw her outside in her driveway. “Did you make the tuna casserole?”

“The what?” she said. “That tuna dish? It was terrible! Awful.”

“What?” I was crushed. Did I just hear her say she didn’t like it? How was this possible? “You didn’t like it?” I said.

“I’m never making that dish again.” She hinted a smile but I knew she meant it.

Even though she had banished my favorite dish to her garbage pit of kitchen hell, I liked her for another reason. Samantha was an adult who didn’t pretend. She told me her truth.

“Are you sure you made it right?” I asked.

“I did exactly what you told me.”

“You used white tuna fish?” White tuna was a key ingredient. Dark tuna would have ruined it.

“Yes. It was terrible. I threw half of it out.”

I have since discovered that many people despise tuna fish casserole. My brother adores it, but his wife refuses to make it. Mention tuna casserole to my husband and his face turns into a battered-looking sponge.

These days, I don’t eat much processed foods, so even I’ve stopped lusting for it. I guess change, except for what we preserve in memory, is imminent.

# # #

For fun, name four foods that were staples in your childhood refrigerator.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Merle's Door

After this week’s sad puppy story, I wanted to recommend a book that will lift your hearts to the heavens. This memoir by Ted Kerosote begins with a fortuitous meeting. A stray dog shows up on a river bank where Ted is white watering out West. From that moment on, Ted and his new companion, Merle, share an exploration through the hills and dales of humanity and caninanity that will expand your mind and soul beyond anything you imagined up to now.

Merle’s Door will deepen your understanding about everything, including my favorite question: what's home?

I laughed with this book. I cried. I learned about animal and human behaviors. I learned about America’s wilderness. Evolution. Love. Please read this book. It is truly special.

One other thing. I was so moved by this story, I wrote the author. Anytime a book inspires you the way Merle’s Door inspired me, I urge you to do the same. Send your letter via the author’s agent or simply email the author directly via the contact listed on the author’s website.

Now, let's hear about your favorite dog book.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

House Pets – Part I

The Unnamed

Sad to say, our family didn’t have a good history with house pets. Dad brought home an Airedale puppy one summer when I was about 3 or 4. The first evening, Mom took me out to the back yard to meet our new pup. It didn’t have a name yet. This was right before my bedtime when the sun was setting through the oak and pine trees.

The whole family was in the yard to meet our pet—my two older sisters, Mom and Dad. My younger brother wasn’t born yet. I had on my summer pajamas—cotton shorts and matching blouse with metal snaps for buttons. The new puppy had a long, rectangular face. He looked big!

Someone said, “You can pat him.”

I wanted to touch him but I felt scared and started running. In that same instant, the pup chased after me. Squealing with fright and delight, I ran in tighter and tighter circles. What if he caught me? Would he nip my bare legs and feet? I turned around to look and slipped on the grass, falling on my back.

Standing over me, panting in my face, the pup was all smiles and full of accomplishment. He’d won me over. I'd made a new friend.

“Okay. Time to say goodnight, now,” Mom said. She was strict about bedtime.

Upstairs in my bedroom, Mom read to me as she always did, then kissed me goodnight. I listened for the puppy outside and though I couldn’t hear anything, happiness squiggled through my limbs. I couldn't believe my good fortune: I had a pet.

Not long after, the light dimming outside, Mom came back up.

“Honey,” she said, sitting on my bed. She spoke quietly and looked sad. “I have something to tell you.”

Apparently, on the way to get something in the garage, Dad had tied the puppy’s leash to the back stair railing. During those brief, shattering moments —my father was gone for just a minute—the puppy in his exuberance slipped through the rails and dangled from his leash. The metal training collar functioned like a slip noose, tightening around his throat, choking him to death.

After my mother left again, I lay for a long time unable to sleep, going round and round, reliving the puppy’s chase and his short life with me. I wanted to cry but I was angry with my father and upset, my heart turned upside down.

How many times had Dad told us he wanted a dog? and now this unthinkable had happened. If I had been in charge, could I have saved our puppy’s life?

“I was gone for a minute, not even a minute,” my father kept saying the next day, and the next, and for days after that.

I was angry, but I also felt sorry for my father. I could see that he was torn and ashamed.—“Not even a minute. Less than a minute. Seconds.” He shook his head, beating himself for his mistake.

That marked the beginning of my divided self. One part of me surfaced like a shark circling toward the smell of darkness that I sensed lay ahead. Another part of me knew, even then, that to escape that darkness, I would need to learn how to forgive.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


For many of us, home is connected to a place. That’s why my book selection for this week is the novel:

My Antonia

by Willa Cather

I read My Antonia in my twenties. By then, our brick Tudor was gone. I couldn't go back to it. Certainly not in the same way. Maybe this is why I found My Antonia's sense of place seductive, aching and as full of wonder about place as any place can be.

Take a look at this classic story set in Nebraska.

If you've already read it, tell me your thoughts. Did you connect with it or not? Name a book you love that evokes a powerful sense of place.

And an afterthought: In 8th grade, I hated the title, My Antonia. I had no desire to read it. I thought it sounded stuffy. Then I read the novel in my twenties and fell in love. I think grammar schools often over-push the classics before kids are emotionally ready to appreciate what they're reading.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Lawn Wars

Neighbors often stopped by to consult with my father--the gardener and caretaker of all green things--on how to grow geraniums, get rid of weeds, and make their lawns look like his.

You see, none of the houses on my street had a yard like ours. Our grass was soft as babies’ feet and greener than anyone else’s for blocks and blocks. Directly across from us, the white Colonial that needed a fresh coat of paint sat under tall shade trees, its lawn colorless and bedraggled, tired as the old terrier that slept there all summer long.

The neighbors next door to us, at the top end of the street, didn’t spend time in their garden either. Actually, they didn’t have a garden. They didn’t have a lawn. Though the family owned a steel scraps company and drove fancy cars—the husband exchanged his shiny Cadillac for a newer model every year—this neighbor’s yard was mostly dirt and tree roots.

But one summer, a flatbed truck appeared in the next door neighbor’s driveway carrying huge wheels of rolled up sod. In the course of a few hours, I watched several men unfurl the sod and lay it down in strips until the entire front yard was covered with a thick matting of green grass. I watched from the living room window. I simply couldn’t believe it.

That evening, the grumbling started in our house.

"Ha ha,” father said. He was Hollywood handsome with dark hair and eyes. “They think they can have an instant lawn? Wait a few weeks. Who’s going to take care of the weeds when they start showing?”

He had a point. My father was unpredictable, but when it came to gardens, I could rely on his knowledge and expertise.

At the dinner table, we kept talking about it.

“It doesn’t look good. It looks fake. It’s not a real lawn,” I said to make him and me feel better.

“Oh, I’m not worried,” he said with a flourish. “I told you. They have to take care of it. We’ll see how it looks in a few weeks.”

For someone who lacked patience, who was often short-tempered and mad, it amazed me how gentle he could be around horticultural things. When he got wild in the yard, it wasn’t a savage kind of wild. Out there he wore loose fitting, dirt-stained pants and didn’t care how he looked. (Weekday mornings, he wore custom-tailored suits to the office, manicured his nails, and expected us to be well-dressed.) In his garden, he dug and clawed at the earth until he was soaked with sweat, his hair no longer straight but curly and happily unkempt.

"How could anyone purchase a yard?" I wondered aloud as if it were a moral question.

“Bah! We’ll see what they do with it,” Dad said. “It takes work to grow a garden.”

I knew he was right. I watched him tend to our garden almost every day. And I watched how the garden tended to my father. If he was irritable, he could walk out into the yard and his plants wouldn’t yell back. When he swore at the lawn mower for not starting up, his temper dispelled faster in the fresh air.

“It doesn’t look that good,” I said again. In truth, that neighbor’s instant lawn depressed me. Could it be that my father’s labor was for naught?

I mean. Sure. We all saw that the instant lawn looked nicer than before—much nicer than the dirt and root infested plot that had once made our pristine yard shine brightest; But I didn’t want it to equal our yard. Our yard was hand-grown from seed, mowed with devotion week after week by my father.

Over the next several weeks, you can be sure we all kept a close watch on the neighbor’s lawn to see how it would hold up. Shameful to admit, but I felt joyous when the first batch of sod started turning yellow and brown.

“Dad! Did you see the grass? It’s got yellow patches. It’s turning yellow!” I said jumping up and down as if I’d won an award.

“No kidding?” he said, smiling. I could see his satisfaction removing every line in his face.

Within two weeks, either the Universe agreed with us or wanted to teach somebody a lesson because every strip of the neighbor’s new sod had turned a sickly yellow.

“It’s infested. Got some kind of bug,” my father said. “Didn’t I tell you? It’s not easy to have a lawn like mine. You have to pay attention. You have to mow it. Weed it. Water it. It doesn’t grow by itself you know. These things take work. Devotion. Love.”

The neighbors didn’t give up. Even though their second attempt at laying down sod took hold, everyone in my family knew the truth: buying a front yard didn’t count no matter how good it appeared on the surface. Home grown was better. Always and forever. Our neighbors had opted for the easy way out.

Friday, July 24, 2009


I lost my childhood home but Jeannette Walls never had one. She lived in cars, on the street, in tents, in shacks. This is an astonishing story of a family and the children who survived their often insane, yet insanely creative and brilliant parents. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (Scribner, 2005).

If you've read it, tell me your thoughts. Did you want to strangle the mother? the father? or embrace them?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Losing A Childhood House

Our family fought a lot but one thing we agreed upon: we loved our brick Tudor house. Set on one half-acre of lawns, trees and gardens, my house on 14 Scarsdale Road was my kingdom, a place where I spent my entire childhood, where my father planned to stage our garden weddings in the backyard. ( I have two older sisters and a younger brother.) Built in 1937, the house sat on a knoll on a shady, dead end street in Newton, MA, a suburb west of Boston.

Every spring, I watched my father’s Broadway show—not in New York—his spectacle took place in our back yard.

In April, I couldn’t wait to see whether the two starring crab apple trees would outdo themselves this year, filling every bough and twig with blossoms. Would the purple, white and pink phlox that my father planted along the borders of the yard and around the big oak tree deepen and brighten? Would the dominant pink phlox overtake the gene recessive purple ones?

My father’s flower show performed every day in May and extended for weeks into June, the colors gaining momentum until whites and purples and pinks flowed like rivulets through the front, side and backyards amassing to one thrilling river of colors and scents. By June, millions of petals flew from the trees and covered the lawn like confetti.

Inside my house, life wasn’t as pretty. Would I find evidence of rage like the time I walked in to find magazines, newspapers and letters scattered across the kitchen floor because my moody father didn’t like our kitchen countertops covered in paper piles? (We had a live-in black maid who kept our professionally decorated house dust-free, floors polished, silverware untarnished, counter tops clean, and dirty dinner dishes washed and put away.)

Would I learn that my younger brother had thrown something at his teacher? Or that my middle sister was grounded again because she hadn’t done her homework? Or that our maid of three months had absconded with her boyfriend, fed up with the life of cleaning homes of rich people? ( Maids came and left our house about once every six to twelve months.)

On the upside, I spent many evenings after dinner singing around the Chickering upright piano with Mom and my sister, Lynne. Mom could play anything: Beethoven, Jazz, pop, Broadway. She was born with perfect pitch and large, piano hands.

The antique lamps next to the couch and the piano’s reading spotlight created a glow in the living room at night, like a well-tuned theater set. The living room was dressed in French, country blue carpet, blue toile drapes that matched the blue toile upholstered couch. On this home stage, Lynne and I sang harmonies, our voices gaining strength and vibrancy with each refrain.

Tonight, tonight, The world is wild and bright
Going Mad
Shooting sparks into space

“We should start a traveling singing group, like the Trapp family,” Mom said, her fingers deftly moving up and down the keyboard, her foot tapping the pedals, her shoulders leaning into the rhythms.

In such moments, I believed my house would be like this forever: full of music and flowers, polished, the envy of others.

Not to be.

During my high school years, my father lost his footing in the family shoe business, following a series of events that, in the end, he couldn’t control. Ultimately, a massive dock strike in 1970 did him in; his entire inventory of shoes for the year trapped on ships. He might as well have tossed those leather-soled wingtips into the harbor like the tea in Boston’s infamous tax rebellion.

My parents put the Tudor up for sale to avoid bankruptcy. They withdrew their membership from the country club.

With my two older sisters already out of the house, my younger brother and I heard my father groaning in the morning, saw his face twisted with disbelief as he headed out the kitchen door each day to watch his business—his unsinkable Titanic—careening to the bottom of the sea.

I no longer lived in the house when Mom and Dad moved with my brother into a plain, narrow townhouse with thin walls in a less toney neighborhood. The Tudor sold in 1971, in a down market for less than $100,00. Today (despite the current real estate fiasco) it is worth close to a million dollars. The double loss of house and business plunged my father into thoughts of suicide and a decade long depression, my mother into an emotional deep-freeze.

I plunged, too, having fled to a grim boarding house to escape the pain. Decades later, I'm still searching for my true home.

What about you?

Monday, July 20, 2009

One Windowsill

Ever wondered why it can take years to get to a particular house chore? I certainly have.

Maybe it has to do with change.

I live in a 100-year-old building, and many things need updating, the windowsill next to my kitchen sink, for instance. Covered in layers and layers of paint, it was chipped. Ugly. Stained. Every time I went to pour a glass of water, rinse a plate, or wash a pint of strawberries, I saw that caked up windowsill. I’d been looking at it for eleven years.

Yes. Eleven years!

It needed to be scraped and re-painted, but I had a lot of reasons why I didn’t want to start with all that. For one, I knew I needed to use paint remover and paint removers scare me. They have warnings about noxious fumes and chemicals that remind me of nasty and predatory things from my past.
(Maybe it’s even scarier how I let the past control me. )

Thirty years ago, I used paint remover to strip an old, wooden desk. Following instructions on the back of the container, I wore gloves. I kept the windows open for proper ventilation. I think I wore a mask--all to protect against those list of ingredients on the can that said they could lead to bodily harm.

Not long after that little project, I found out I had a serious blood disease (Aplastic anemia). I don’t believe I got the disease from that paint remover, but I've never been able to completely rule out the possibility. The connection gripped my mind.

Meanwhile, 30 years later, this windowsill was really bugging me.

Nowadays, we have non-toxic alternatives. A short trip to my local hardware store, and I found a paint remover that was "green". It cost $20.00 for a pint-sized container--pricey--but I decided to go for it.

This time around, the gluey goop didn’t have that stinging, suffocating odor like the one I used before—more like a mild, sweet smell that I remembered from elementary school art classes.

The old paint on the sill was inches thick (okay, slight exaggeration, maybe half an inch thick); I had to reapply the goop three times. As each layer gave way to another, I wondered: who painted this color and why? How long did each layer last? How many more layers are there? Why did someone choose mustard yellow, blue or green? After several hours, I scraped that sill down to the original wood, then I let the sill dry out for a few days.

Next, I applied two coats of primer and two coats of semi-gloss white. I’m planning to put a final, glossy white finish on it, but I’m going to let the sill rest for a bit.

Let the windowsill rest? How come?

I think I’ve asked a lot of this windowsill, stripping away 100 years of history in two days. It’s been relieved of all those dried up protective layers, but if someone did that to me, I’d need some time to recover, too.

Got a house-related chore you've put off for years? Tell me why...

Friday, July 17, 2009

Every Home Needs Books!

A home without books is, in my opinion, an incomplete home. So every Friday, I’m going to recommend a book that you can check out of the library, buy at the bookstore, or put on your to-read list. Books need homes and homes need books. It’s that simple.

My husband built this bookcase in a weekend. It was one of the first things he did when we moved to where we live now. At one point, we’d moved so often, our books remained unpacked in boxes and stacked in various basements. After awhile, I started to feel as if we’d left our beloved pets locked up and abandoned in dark cages.

So when we got to Brookline, my husband spent the afternoon laying down the frame on the floor and when it was in one piece, he raised it up like a Shaker house building. This bookcase is in my office and takes up an entire wall. It is one of my happiest pleasures. It gives me joy everyday. It’s a little messy. It still needs paint but I love it. It was truly made with care and love. Thanks, hubby.

Now you need to check out this book:
The Big House A Century in the life of an American Summer Home by George Howe Colt (Scribner, 2003). A beloved house is a launching pad for Colt’s story about a blueblood Boston family and lifestyle over many generations. With growing expenses, will the family be able to keep the house? Can a house cause nervous breakdowns and family rifts? Read it and find out.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The houses we leave behind

Yesterday, I was walking in my old neighborhood in Newton, MA, and I passed a house that I think of as “Ginny Hyde’s house.” It’s a lovely wood shingle house with Dutch colonial lines. I knew this house as an 8-year old child. The thing is, Ginny hasn’t lived here for more than 30 years. A close friend of my mother’s, she moved with her husband to Florida decades ago. This past year, she passed away. She was in her 80s. She was a lovely, ebullient woman with a strong, upbeat personality. As a child, she was one of my favorite adults.

I have no idea how many people have since occupied her house, and I don’t think it will ever matter. For me, that house will always be Ginny Hyde’s house along with memories of what it looked like inside, the memory of who I was at 8-years old, and of course, Ginny.

It’s like a strand of DNA has mapped that experience and stored it forever inside me in the shape and vision of a house.

Though I didn’t spend a whole lot of time in this house, I felt the pull of the past and was reminded, again, of how strong it can be, like a tide that goes in and out. Maybe the heart is another kind of moon tugging at these memories, lifting them up and sending them back under depending on what’s going on in our lives.

Houses will do that to us. We project our hopes and great expectations on these structures that stand witness to our days and nights, our habits, our most private moments.

Walking past Ginny's house is an easy memory for me, not fraught with ambivalence. I've got plenty of that where I live right now.

--which brings me back to the comment “anonymous” made in response to my post about favorite things (see July 13 post). Anonymous said how difficult it can be to leave a home, and the desire to go back a source of ongoing pain. I also heard from a few others offline. One person said she didn’t like her house growing up, another person said she hates the house she’s living in now.

I’m here to say that these feelings of discomfort about where we live or lived are not uncommon—at all—but they are signals we should listen to. I’m also here to encourage you to do something about that discomfort. Start with something small.

By the way, here’s another little factoid about hermit crabs: they can be quite picky about the shells they prefer.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Favorite Spot

We live on the top floor of a three story 1910 building in an urban town next to Boston. (See the photo at the top of the July 10 post.) I love the view from my office windows.

Up here, I can survey my street, see the life around me or get lost in the maze of leaves and trees (I tried taking a few pictures here but they don't do justice to the feeling of leafiness, sun and shade at this time of year.)A squirrel built a summer nest in the crook of the maple outside my window. I spent some time the other day watching him (or her) running up a limb, chewing off a twig of leaves, and scurrying back down to add to the nest. (Again, I tried to capture this in the close up photo. You can sort of see some leaves hanging from the tree's crook.)

It’s also where I listen to the nighthawks diving for bugs in the evening. Their pulsing screeches echo between the brick buildings. From this vantage point, I can see who’s walking their dogs in the morning, or taking the groceries in, or hustling their children into their cars. It’s where I can see the sun and the moon set, and it’s where I can pretend I’m elevated—above gravity, a little closer to the sky, which gives me a great sense of comfort.

Since I do believe our childhood homes influence our later choices about where we live, I realized that feeling “elevated” is important to me. Growing up, my bedroom was on the second floor and as a teen, I moved to an attic bedroom on the third floor. In both bedrooms, I spent many hours leaning out the window, which made me feel at once bird-like, and safe—safe to have my private thoughts and safe to consider the large questions of the universe: where did stars come from, what kind of life did other girls live? And ultimately, what kind of life would I live?

How does your favorite spot relate to your childhood home?


Friday, July 10, 2009

Come on In

Welcome to Home Confessions, a place where you can share your joys, sorrows, frustrations, hopes, and desires about home.

Home and how people live is a subject that fascinates me. In fact, I’ve been writing about other peoples’ homes for years (about eleven actually), for the Boston Globe, Coastal Living, New England Home, Boston Common and others.

I’ve written about two-bedroom condos and 14,000 square foot estates. I’ve covered window boxes and lighting, but one thing I’ve learned over the years, no matter who you are or where you live or how big or small your space, we all yearn to have a home.

If you grew up in the States, I’m willing to bet that you’ve moved a few times in your lifetime. Either you’ve rented, bought, sold, coveted a place you couldn’t afford, or worried about losing the one you already owned. I’ve moved a lot—about 14 times in the last 30 years (yes, really); kind of like a hermit crab moving in and out of different shells.

Here’s a fun fact about hermit crabs: did you know that the shape of the hermit crab’s most vital part—its stomach—is determined by the shape of the shell it once inhabited as a juvenile?. I think the same is likely true for humans. What do you think?

The other reason for the title—the confessions part of it—is about revealing who we are by looking at where and how we live. As I see it, our dwellings are vessels that contain and shape our personal stories. That’s what I hope we’ll be sharing (and confessing) here.

I’d like to start by encouraging you to post a story about a favorite spot in your house. Tell me why it makes you feel good. I’ll tell you about one of my favorite spots in my next post. Feel free to send me photos. I’ll post those, too. Send photos to: jessicakeener1(at)gmail(dot)com.

Thanks for stopping by. My door’s always open.