I recently read a magazine article which was primarily about the subtle joys of retirement. Her point was that, while it was hard to become accustomed to determining her own use of time, she found it to be a great wonder in her life. I agree with that wholeheartedly, both the difficulty of getting used to it and the joy it brings being truly the captain of my fate, as it were. But something she wrote got me to thinking. One of her greatest joys now that her children have grown and she’s no longer employed is that she does not have to be home at any given time, nor stay home. Her life, now, can be and is spent away from home, in the great world.
For me, however, the entire purpose of retirement, the delight I gain in not having a paid job, is that I can stay home. I have always liked home best, enjoyed the freedom of doing what I wished inside the cozy, private space of my own domain, taking care of my house and possessions, working on my computer, reading, sewing, needlepointing, even watching TV, enjoying the antics (even if they are mostly asleep) of my cats. I still arrive back at my house, put my car away and close the garage door with a feeling of safety, security and joy. I’m HOME! I remember how glorious that feeling was when I was working, but it still lives in me every day.
So I’m curious. What about the concept of home can be to me such a welcome refuge, but to others more a prison? Perhaps for the writer mentioned above, her time at home had always been spent dealing with, picking up after and mothering children, cleaning the space, figuring out what to have for dinner, and much more. It could very well have been a place where there was no leisure, no self-determination, no feeling of refuge. It could very well have been a place where the writer simply had more and even harder, perpetual work to do. I have heard from women, particularly women with small children, that leaving home, getting out of the house, is like being released from a particularly noisy, messy and sticky jail. I didn’t have children, so that aspect of life at home was not at issue. But I was married, once, and sometimes the presence of a husband seemed to loom over me. My home, my rooms, weren’t really mine. I was fortunate because our house had a small basement room that I used as a sewing room and (later on) a refuge from my marriage, and I suppose it served as an emotional release valve. Since he never went in it, my husband didn’t comment about its tidiness or lack of same or the ways in which I stored and organized my projects there. But I have clear memories of him going through the living room and rearranging ornaments so that they were militarily square with the edges of the surfaces they were on. I remember quite clearly how that drove me quietly crazy. I remember, too, that he once made an entire day’s discussion (lecture) over the fact that I had forgotten I already had gelatin and continued to buy packages of it until I had over 20 packages. Of course he was right and I didn’t buy gelatin again throughout the course of our marriage (that’ll show him), but what irritated me is that he was spending his time going through MY kitchen cabinets.
Now, from his point of view, of course it was also his house and he had a perfect right to take an interest in it and make his stamp upon it. (It should be noted, he had his own room that he called his dressing room that I didn’t enter except to clean, so there was a kind of parity. It should also be noted that we had similar tastes (not, obviously, for gelatin). Also, he was old-fashioned in some ways and thought that the decoration of the house was up to me.) So I didn’t make an outsize fuss because I did know he had a right to live in our home just as I did.
But I have to admit that I didn’t miss living with him when we divorced. How lovely to live in my own place where I could have as many packages of gelatin as I wanted in my cupboards. (Oddly enough, I don’t buy it any longer, don’t seem to want to eat gelatin salads.)
So perhaps my concept of home, as is the writer’s first mentioned above, is doing what we want to do in our own space, whether that is cocooning (me) or spending most of the time outside of it (her). There are a great many concepts of home, I think, ranging from my own utter sense of refuge and welcome and gladness to the home-as-prison feeling, where the home is just a house, just a place to put possessions and (occasionally) sleep. Robert Frost once said, “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” He was talking, I think, more about family than a physical space, and he has a good point. When I was a little girl, we moved often, because Daddy changed jobs about every other year. He always said that “home is where the heart is.” Again, he wasn’t talking about a physical space, but an emotional place of welcome. Until his death, I was always completely secure in that emotional loving space. Later in my life, the specific house got more important, I admit, to my sense of being home, because the emotional center left when he died.
On the other hand, however, the concept of home can’t really be encompassed by four walls and a floor and a roof. My sense of home now comes deeply because I have returned home, home to the mountains of Estes Park. My home still is the refuge that shuts out the cold and snow and the demands of the outside world, but my home is also and always the mountains surrounding the Estes valley, the sense of peace and joy that coming back to the place I was raised always gives me. When I lived in Los Angeles, my sense of home was truncated because I didn’t really like it there, and I kept trying to imagine the house that would make it all right. That never worked. My sense of home in Los Angeles became my friends, not the places they lived, but the connections among us that made living in a big city less lonely. New York, well, Manhattan, was home immediately. I fell in love with it and made my neighborhood my home (this was of course facilitated by the fact that New York apartments, unless one has pots of money or rent control (neither of which I had), are small, cramped and usually face north for some reason. So my sense of home expanded to include my block and the public spaces I had the great good fortune to live next to (Central Park and Lincoln Center). But now, home is Colorado, or at least that part of it from Denver to the continental divide in which my small town nestles.
And one last comment. Let’s face it, a home would be a prison, by definition, if we couldn’t leave it. Which is what, I think, the writer I first mentioned above still felt after years as the mother, wife, housecleaner, “chief cook and bottle washer,” as my mother would have said. Just let me out of here. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t feel my great joy in coming home, in closing all the doors behind me and feeling safe and enclosed, if I hadn’t, after all, been out in the great world. In all things, it is the contrast that points up the value.
I’ve never had a good sense of home. I’ve had a fantasy home, but I have a feeling that if I suddenly acquired it, it would stop being the ideal home. Interestingly, I’ve felt more “homey” in other people’s homes. Their homes were always more interesting, more comfortable, nicer, neater, and not mine. I haven’t thought much about this lately, but I wonder how many people feel that way?
I feel that too, sometimes. Other people have a design, while I just have whatever I accumulated. For me, home will always be bound up with a feeling of safety and refuge. And cats.
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