Recently, I had the chance to watch The History of the Home, a BBC series featuring the historian Lucy Worsley, who is the Chief Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces. The series examines transformations over time of four crucial elements of the home: the living room, the bathroom, the bedroom, and the kitchen; it’s based on Worsley’s book If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home. Worsley is famous for her enthusiastic recreations of authentic methods of living, dining, and dressing, and she throws herself into bathing like a Victorian (long robes down to the ground for modesty; freezing seas); washing like a medieval housewife with a special ingredient provided by a passerby (yes, urine); and helping a dog run in the middle of a wheel that turns a spit, thereby roasting a giant haunch of meat (from which the helpful hound receives a well-earned treat).
Worsley’s discussion of the home’s history makes me think about my own history of homes: the many I’ve occupied since birth and the places I may live in the future. It also brings to mind the question of what makes a home, a question I ask myself as I settle into my newest rental, trying to put my mark on it even as I ready myself for the next potential move.
My experience of home began rather modestly from the location of a dresser drawer within a row house in the north of England. My grandmother’s house was my first stop after the maternity hospital, and since I arrived early a drawer stood in for the absent crib. When, many years later, my cat had her kittens, she bore and raised them in a dresser drawer I had prepared for her: a nice symmetry.
From there it was on to rustic, romantic surroundings: a cabin in the then-modest little city of Anchorage, Alaska. Weeds grew through the floorboards of the rented cabin in summer, and it was so small that my addition meant the expulsion of our husky to the doghouse in the back yard: I’m not sure that he ever forgave me. As a marker of how much that city has grown since my birth, the house is now practically downtown, the low rental rate of its past now a very hazy memory.
Juneau, Alaska’s capital, was the next stop, and my first memories are of the two Juneau houses we rented: first the split level with its water views and the plate glass window that the blue jays pecked when they weren’t fed on time, the second an A-frame right by a low bluff that led down to the small beach and the shore’s edge. My mother would find me down there at all hours throwing pebbles into the sea anemones and watching them spit them out: a very satisfying game.
From there we moved into the first home we owned, located in another Alaskan town many miles from Juneau. Our house, a ranch with a large basement, was on a bluff, with amazing views of the inlet and mountain ranges. At night, you could watch the lights of tanker ships as the moved up and down the inlet and sometimes even see signs of the oilrigs far out in the open water. Once, a volcano across the inlet began to erupt, sending out clouds of ash, some of which moved over our house, turning the gleaming snow a deep brown. Cutting down into the snow later in the winter you could see the layers of snow, ash, snow, ash: a temporary record of the eruptions. A longer effect was felt by my mother’s strawberries, which grew beautifully thanks to their additions of ash.
The house had a two-car garage which housed a good deal besides cars, from our husky, who had a wooden crate for a home in one corner, to our vast refrigerator, full of neatly-wrapped packages of moose, salmon, and halibut. I still remember the sight of haunches of moose hanging from the ceiling by thick orange cords and the smell of smoked salmon as my mother and I tried out our new smoker. Our second dog, a Shetland Sheepdog, spent a few hours in the chilly garage as a just-adopted puppy, although he quickly managed to wheedle his way into the warmer basement and then into the luxurious spaces of the bedrooms in just a few short days: no fool he.
This house no longer exists, at least not in the place it used to stand. As the bluff slowly crumbled away, the house was removed: I’m not sure where it ended up. In my memory the house still stands, surrounded by my mother’s gardens, the chicken coop, the goat barn, the graves of lost pets and other reminders of our animal-loving lives. I miss those gardens: the bluff-facing garden with its middle ring of flowers and the small red-hatted garden gnome, brought specially from England, and the side garden full of potato plants of deep green, a few raspberry canes, and neat rows of vegetables, although the latter were a bit of a sore spot. Due to my inattention, a few chickens once managed to devour all of my mother’s peas and carrots in seconds flat. I watched, amazed, as they moved down the rows with delicate, rhythmic precision, sucking each soft green pea shoot into their mouths until not a single one remained.
From that place, which really felt like a home, imbued as it was with the tickling and teasing, the happy dinner parties and bitter tears of childhood and adolescence, it was off to years of temporary roofs, and with those various spaces, none occupied for more than four years, some much less, a sense of transience. As I’ve moved from place to place I’ve often felt that I’m camping, in a sense, mentally and physically, hovering over these spaces but not fully inhabiting them.
I’ve learned to accept, even enjoy, the opportunity to experience so many new, often very quirky, places, from the tiny studio I rented near San Francisco’s Nob Hill, from which I could hear the cable cars running day and night, to the small house with paper-thin walls in Oregon which contained, for no discernable reason, a tree trunk that stretched from floor to ceiling. There was also the bonus of the exciting wildlife that occupied many of these spaces, from the geckos that ran along the ceiling in our rental in Saipan (part of the Marianas Islands), to the roaches in that Panhandle apartment in San Francisco which no bug bomb could eliminate, only mildly disturb.
I often brought very little when I moved to these places, sometimes only my computer, some clothes, and a few cardboard boxes as temporary furniture, but it was always amazing how quickly a few posters on the walls made them feel, at least for a moment, like a home. And every time I had to move I felt a wrench, not only the physical exhaustion of moving, the stress and strain, but a sense of lack: a lack of stability, of permanence, of a real home.
At times, I long for a permanent home and a perfect one, free the faults of poor heating, strange creaks, broken appliances, and miniscule bathrooms. Of course, there’s no such thing; all homes are imperfect: too large, too small, too cold, too stuffy, too full of people or too empty, ringing only with a sense of absence. And even if the “perfect” home is found, some accident of job, love, life itself may intervene, particularly the force of time: swift-footed, devouring, defied only by poets.
Perhaps I should just acknowledge that in the end we are all gypsies, traveling on, forever searching for the place, physical and figurative, that we can call home. To bookend Worsley’s thoughtful, excited survey of the home’s changes and continuities, I’ll close with a few lines from playwright Tom Stoppard. In his heartbreaking, witty play Arcadia one of Stoppard’s characters meditates on the impermanence of human creations and humanity itself whilst simultaneously gesturing to a kind of return for all that is lost, an essential recreation: “We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. but there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it.”