The Forgotten Relationship

Bookstores overflow with guides to living with the boss, with parents, children and even our pets. So where is the lowdown on how to live with the average abode?

Sue and Kean Mitchell were renovating the plain, shoe-box bungalow they had recently purchased from its original owners.  When they removed the sixties-style ceiling panels in the basement, out tumbled a mystery package.  Tied in twine and wrapped in brown paper was a lady’s slip with lace trim, and a letter dated January 4, 1957.  Continuing their deconstruction, the Mitchells discovered they were living in a house built by Sher-Wood, Louisville and CCM.  The entire basement seemed constructed from hockey sticks.

As I hear the story, I smile knowingly, and for the moment my parents are alive again, fully present in all their idiosyncrasies.  The letter was my mother’s, the package intended for my aunt, and the hundreds of hockey sticks a record of my father’s innovation.  While working as a janitor at the local arena, unable to afford lumber for his own renovation projects, he brought home broken sticks every day.  It remains a mystery, however, how the unmailed package came to reside in the joists above the basement ceiling. 

As the Mitchells peel off paint and paper and carpet like an onion’s layers, they reveal stories wrapped around stories.  Their most dramatic discovery, though, is not the letter, the package or the hockey sticks: it is that their house has a life of its own, and is becoming a partner in their lives.

Because houses are inanimate, we think them unworthy of psychological analysis.  “But homes are primarily about people and relationships,” says P.J. Wade, a specialist in helping individuals and organizations manage change.  Just as the people in our lives influence our personal development, living spaces shape our living.

Several societal trends are converging to place renewed emphasis on the importance of homes in our lives.  The demographics of aging baby boomers along with nineties economics and electronic networking increasingly make homes the focus of our ambitions and anxieties. 

So now it seems everyone is on a quest for home improvement, wanting to make the most of small spaces, or find the perfect countertop, in pursuit of the ideals preached by Martha Stewart, dozens of magazines, and TV home shows.  To accommodate these urges, humble hardware and lumber stores have been transformed into lifestyle wonderlands.

A key attraction of renovation and redecorating is the seeming ease with which, through paint and ceramic tile, our lives can be changed.  Our dream of a bright and open kitchen embodies our dream of a bright and open family life.  A comfortable-yet-vigorous front room gives us glimpses of a thriving social life.  And unlike career change or self-improvement initiatives which seem elusive or beyond our abilities, these home improvements are finite and (we are always assured) very do-able.

But decorating fashions, complete with coordinates and accessories, can be fleeting and, ultimately, unsatisfying.  We must look beyond fashion to understand the homes in our lives.  If we look back some 300 years, we see that our contemporary sense of self began to emerge with the creation of private homes.

Medieval life “was a public affair,” and ‘a room of one’s own’ was unthinkable until craftsmen began to construct family space within their shops, observes architectural critic Witold Rybczynski. .  The ability to physically separate one’s self from the broad fabric of society allowed a similar psychological independence.  Thus, the house itself became “a setting for an emerging interior life,” where a person could construct an inner self.

As a result, the home becomes identified with the self.  The high-profile, public rooms in our homes demonstrate “how we think we should appear to others,” says Wade.  Because kitchens, family rooms and entertaining areas often reflect a designer’s interpretation of our lifestyle, they don’t tell much about us.  “The bedroom, the basement, the garage — that’s your real life,” according to Wade.  Those oft-slighted spaces, free of conscious decoration, offer a psychological self-portrait.   Is your bedside table a treasury of family photos and sentimental keepsakes, or a functional space for the radio alarm?  Is your garage a workshop for weekend projects, an afterthought where broken things go, or an actual parking space for cars?  Take a look, and see your self reflected.

A home’s central role in the emotional landscape of our lives is most evident when we reflect upon our formative years.  Childhood homes trigger great emotional outpourings because they are the sites where we first dream, imagine, and play.  A home’s interior is, in the words of French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, “the human being’s first world.”   It therefore comes to embody that person’s world view. 

In moments of recognition, the commonplace details of a dwelling resonate with significance beyond utilitarian function.  A sunny wallpaper triggers tears; the squeak of a closet door reopens childhood treasures.  For the rest of our lives, these places are where “our unconscious is housed,” according to Bachelard.  The Mitchell children’s memories will be imprinted on their kitchen’s diamond patterned linoleum, just as surely as mine live in the floral curls one layer below.

Of course, a house is not a static repository of memory, a photo album made of drywall and carpet.   Over time, change is inevitable.  Yet the cycle of loss and renewal, including a future that may extend beyond any one owner’s, endows a house with even greater significance in our volatile society — it becomes a rare icon of stability.  It’s no surprise, then, that the allure of home ownership is increasing as the pace of change escalates.

Our homes are taking on new roles today as secure, long-term employment fractures into loose arrays of project and contract work. Employees are remaking themselves as home-based entrepreneurs and crafts people, thanks to the electronically networked home.  I write from my home office, while my neighbour monitors oil and gas wells.  Before long, Wade predicts, the home without some sort of business will be the exception.  This completes the loop begun 300 years ago, when it was commonplace for home and business to share one roof.  As with medieval artisans, our occupations increasingly occupy not only us, but our homes and families.

Yet Rybczynski predicts that “the home will remain quite private,” because today’s home business, unlike a medieval one, doesn’t typically involve servants, apprentices, and extended family.  Our private home is indeed our castle, the space where we can be totally in control, as we can never be at the office, school or shopping mall.  In a rented apartment that control may be shadowy, but it reaches a pinnacle in our commonly-held dream: a mortgage-free single detached house.

Home is that place where I will always belong, in a way which no outsider will belong.  At home, I can experience that solitude and secrecy integral to a sense of self. 

Houses are our “signature of intimacy,” as Bachelard writes.  The Mitchell family’s boxy bungalow now bears their signature.  The tiny kitchen nook where my Mom fed five kids now houses the bounty of cabinets and built-in appliances expected by a nineties family of four.  For all its changes, though, the house continues to reveal the lives of those who lived it.  I still wonder who was meant to mail Mom’s package in 1957.

Perhaps we need a self-help guide to ease the anxieties brought on by the recognition that our houses have an existence beyond our own.  I can see the titles now: Renovation Revelations: The Secret Life of Your House,  and Skeletons in the Closet: Soothing the Trauma Within your Walls.