ERIN DONOVAN

What really makes a house a home

Posted Aug. 24, 2014, at 9:28 a.m.
Erin Donovan
Erin Donovan

I have lived in 20 homes thus far in my life. The count would ring higher if I counted every way station that bookended those 20 homes, but I’ll stop at 20 because that feels sufficiently nomadic on its own. Of the lot, there were houses that really mattered and became home in every way four walls and a roof can. There were also ones that never really took us in, never absorbed our story, our smell, and never quite became the nerve center for our frenetic family pulsing. There was the home within which I was born. There was the home within which I was mostly raised. Then there was the home I filled with children of my own. The others, peppered in between, were mostly homes within which I ate nachos and lost socks.

Leaving these 20 homes, regardless of their importance, was always a rueful thing. Staring that last stare into a bedroom, denuded of your imprint, as though it might whisper back the thing you need to hear to make the next destination OK. The crumbling pinholes, the result of too many pop star posters. The divots in the carpet from the bed you always meant to move but never did. The cracked wall socket from the violent tug to the alarm clock cord every morning. I can still feel the lump in my throat when I think of pulling the door closed to the nursery room that cradled my first two children. I figured I’d never have so much trouble closing a door again, but that was nothing compared to the agony of leaving my first home here in Maine, the one we left big city life for. The walk down the driveway, away from my marriage and 10 years of emotions, felt like plummeting into space with no laws of time or gravity to root my steps.

The house that greeted me on the other side of that space odyssey was just down the block. Only a stone’s throw from the home the kids knew and from their school, it felt as though their dominion over what they knew remained intact. I stepped into the house that first night without them. Just my mother and me, two women resolved to scour and scrub and make sense of moving boxes marked with a single and meaningless letter from the alphabet. My mom spent as much time mopping my face of tears as she did the floors that night, in between promises that this house would be what I needed, which at that point was a therapist, an accountant and a man with a toolbox. Mostly she vowed that it would feel like home when the kids arrived.

A few days after they had arrived, I walked into the kitchen, where they sat awaiting breakfast with the sort of breathlessness only children can summon for sliced bananas and stale Cheerios. I stepped into a bubble of rancid air, a smell that every human can identify as having come from someone’s rear end, but a mother can go one further and name precisely which rear end it had escaped. I groaned and rolled my eyes as they broke into spasms of laughter, reveling in the trap I had walked right into. I pulled down the bowls and glasses, none of which actually belonged to us, and I realized that we had made a new home. While it lacked the familiarity of a place curated with wedding gift acquisitions and handed-down mementos, it had that thing that makes everyone within it want to hang around the counter and talk. And pass gas.

It took us only a few days to make it a home, but the rest of the year was valuable, as well. We learned how to order propane, preferably before it runs out, and how to dismantle the fire alarms any time I cook. We learned how to shovel our way out and rock salt our way in. We learned how to catch a mouse in a trap and then how to cry to the right friend to come dispose of it. We learned how to lock ourselves out and wriggle back in.

Now that we have to leave, bound for the next place, I am struck by how much this house gave us. As I stare into the rooms that kept us safe and warm this last year, I hear what the walls whisper: That we can have many residences, even if borrowed, and still be one family. I breathe in the air, which is still perfumed with the scent of our rituals and habits, and I know that we will be alright in the next place because home may be where the heart is, but in our case, it’s also where the fart is.

 

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