Thursday, June 16, 2011

Musings about houses

Have you thought about the houses you've lived in? No doubt, many of us changed our houses--remodelling, repainting, somehow leaving our mark on them. But did the house change you? A recent book review got me to thinking about the houses I've lived in and the American obssession with bigger, better houses. I suffered from that obsession for a long time.
I was raised in a skinny, 1893-built duplex on Chicago's South Side--seemed big as all outdoors to me as a kid, but it was small for a family of four. When I left home, I lived in a series of student housing-type places, including an old Victorian house that was empty except fo rmy three rooms on the ground floor--a bit spooky--and a hunting cabin that someone had built on to in stages. I used to laugh that in 1964, as a starving student, I lived in a split level, but the bedroom was a chicken coop that had been cleaned and attached to the house and the bathroom was opposite the front door--made you a believer in privacy. Still the house had a funky charm, and I loved it. My new husband painted the mailbox with "Alter's Ego" and a physician we knew said, "I get the Alter part, but what's the e-g-o?" Go figure!
When he was in residency and I in graduate school, we lived in rentals in Fort Worth. Then, when our first child was less than a  year we moved into my dream home--a rambling huge Mediterranean with wonderful tiles in the entry floor, tiles surrounding the round fireplace, colorful tiles in the bathrooms, wrought iron chandeliers, a living room with a vaulted ceiling. It was everything I ever wanted--but yes, we changed it, redoing the kitchen, enclosing the patio to make a marvelous huge dining room, and eventually converting the garage into a master bedroom. We gave grand parties in that house and were wildly happy--well, for a while. When my marriage fell apart, so did my happiness with the dream home--built in the 1920s, it was too much for me to maintain. By then, there were four children, and we left for a much smaller, single-story house. It was another charming older home, but the kids mourned for their first home for a long time. I know that house changed me and molded me.
With four kids, I didn't give up the search for the perfect, larger house. The kids and I spent countless weekends touring realtors' open houses but never saw anything that I could afford. We moved to a rambling ranch-style and then, when the four were ready to fly the nest, I moved back to the neighborhood of smaller, older but charming homes--and I've lived in this one for 19 years.
My longing for the huge dream house disappeared somewhere along the way. I began to realize, I think, that I made the home--the house didn't make me. I am happier in this smaller house--2 bedrooms, an office, bath and a half, playroom, and garage apt.--than I ever was in that huge Mediterranean of my dreams. Sometimes I wonder why it took me so long to figure that out. Someone asked me recently if I was ready to consider a retirement home, and I almost jumped out of my skin. No way! I'm staying here. My animals and I are comfortable, and there's room for most if not all of my kids. Grandson Jacob is at home here, and has his own room--the playroom. Life is good.
I'm convinced that houses do mold us but ultimately, home is where we make it--and where we decide to be happy without longing for bigger, better, showier and more expensive.
It did grieve me that a developer "upgraded" the Mediterranean home, replacing all the original tile with fabricated materials, covering up the wonderful turned pillars, and generally making it just another big house, without the grace and charm of the original. Subsequent owners have tried to restore the original look, added on, built here and there, until I hardly recognize the house. There's a lesson there too about moving on with life.

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