Under the baby grand piano was an undisturbed expanse. Sunlight brightened beige carpet and sage green walls. The legs of the piano were mammoth, at the end of which were brass rollers, in case anyone thought to move it. If I lay still and touched the wood, I could feel the vibrations of the chords and melodies brought alive by my siblings or father. I could watch feet at work on the pedals, altering the presentation of notes. I could see the underpinnings of the piano and marveled that it held everything needed for such sounds, especially when the top was propped open. If I was quiet and my father wasn’t giving string lessons, I could stay undisturbed a long while.
I brought pillows to create a miniature home within the small domain. My dolls took their seats or made their way through a maze of textured softness, to the length of curtains, behind which they would wait. They came out to converse, fume and laugh, to smile and bow. Then back they went into their pillowy house where we would listen to the piano’s bountiful voice, enchanted. Sleepy. I put them to bed with brilliant scarves my mother gave me; they doubled as dolls’ clothing and impromptu partitions. I covered my face with a floral scarf, then lay back. This was a front row seat. This was my own hidden world, and I was stage manager, director, actors. The music surrounded me–piano joined by cello or violin or clarinet– and fluttered or blazed its way into mind and heart. My dolls had to be told what I already knew: this was simply home.
Such found spaces were the start of an obsession with dwellings that stayed with me. As a child, it was the piano space and the hideaway behind the evergreens in the back yard. It included the aging maple tree, as well, for branches could be chairs, leafy limbs could be walls and stairs to, depending on the number of climbers, the treetop look-out.
I grew up in a three bedroom, one bath home that housed seven persons. It was a household that welcomed neighbors, frequent visitors, or students of my father. My parents entertained regularly and fit a number of people into the modest but attractive dining and living rooms. The Michigan bungalow was less accommodating than what was preferred, especially since it was not as large as the rambling old Missouri house referred to by the street corner it was on, “Trenton and Lamb”, with its many fruit trees, breezeway and larger rooms. But the house I grew up in didn’t feel that crowded to me. The bedroom we three sisters shared was adequate. My brothers were a dash across the hall. We learned patience and fought quietly. There were ways to create space within space, with books or blankets or a closed closet door. Or a piano. And our yard and the tree nursery behind were heaven.
As I grew up I began to sketch houses as a way to challenge myself and indulge a love of design. Rooflines slanted this way and that; living rooms incorporated glass ceilings or streams; screened balconies were big enough for pajama parties in humid summer nights. I drew the houses I wanted to live in when I grew up: cottages on lakes, glass and fieldstone forest homes, habitations that hid in the sides of hills. And an old, narrow brownstone, of which I had read and thought quite exotic. Once, when I was old enough to accompany my parents to the swanky home of their arts-patron friends, I was overcome with glee when I saw a tall tree rising through the rooms, through the roof. Anything was possible, I decided. I saw what could be done, how people could match houses to dreams.
I lived a lot of places after leaving my parents’ home. As a college student and newlywed, I once inhabited a chicken coop that was more likely a shed. It had, of course, been fully renovated but one could barely walk in and out of the tiny spaces we called rooms. At the peak of the roof in the kitchen and bathroom we could stand up full height but without elbow room to move. I can’t say I was fond of it, but it was unique, and was shelter enough for a time.
By age thirty or so, I stopped counting how many times I moved, either for school or work. Over time there were several children joining us. Then divorces. Buying a house seemed a far-off dream. For someone who had grown up in one house, it was surprising how easily I adapted. I was, in fact, excited about each new city or town and with it, the discovery process of making new friends. I had an expansive appetite for adventure; the apartments and houses were part of it, the setting for a life.
Without money to burn or a gift for either decorating or domesticity, I had a few challenges. There were my own paintings at first, then prints and photographs hung. There were ways to make things feel intimate, eclectic, homey. Candles blurred imperfections. Incense camouflaged telltale remnants of previous tenants. Books overflowing bookshelves fixed any dull spot. My cello and a few guitars looked handsome in the corner. Handmade ceramics lent an artistic, earthy feel. Colorful pillows and wall hangings (harkening back to life under the piano), children’s art work, warm color on well-used walls: it could be a place to call one’s own, if even for a short while. Add love and we were set.
Then we were transferred to Tennessee, where we bought an A-frame house on a half-acre of land. It was built into a hill and from the road the A-shape looked deceptively like one-story. An anomaly in the small, southern town with a village green, it reminded us of northern Michigan homes. With four bedrooms, two baths and two spacious living areas it was large enough for five kids and then some. There was a murky pond which we soon found attracted snakes. There was gardening space which rendered a few good vegetables despite ignorance and weather. Insects abounded, which interested me, except for the black widows in the woodpile–but they were worth a quick look. Facing away from the road, on the ground level, were two bedrooms, a family room, kitchen, all of which looked out onto a large yard and woods. We had a woodstove to use in winter. I kept the fires going while my husband worked long hours. I loved the work, the country- modern feel of the house. I dreamed of getting a big dog but the neighbor’s German Shepherd mix visited daily. The cicadas rasped and buzzed in the deep heat of summer and we watched thunderstorms roll past our large windows. The kudzu vines that grew rapidly were mighty and strange. It was green hilly country coupled with good architecture.
When we left less than two years later, it was the dog who made us cry. He leapt up and licked our faces as we closed the door. We left too soon, but a career called us to another place and a new start once more: Detroit. Still, we found a place in the outskirts, in a suburb that looked like a village putting on fancy raiment. It was not what we’d hoped, smaller and older and in need of a facelift. There would be changes again in a few years. And more after that.
Today I live in the inimitable Pacific Northwest, where the land itself takes my breath away. If that isn’t enough, my city offers a panorama of structures; it favors both old and new. I remain enamored of structures and gardens–of houses, in particular. I pour over good architecture magazines and books. You will find me walking our distinctive neighborhoods, eyes scanning placement of windows, finesse of a portico, the way a veranda encircles a house to bring the outdoors in but keep family and friends close. I take my camera everywhere. I don’t want to miss the odd element or small detail.
You might be surprised: I don’t live in a wildly imaginative or beautiful home. I live simply. It is what we need for now and suits me. But I sometimes long for, even dream of just the right house. I still secretly draw, add a warm watercolor sheen, light dappling a courtyard. As we are apt to do as we get older, I wonder if becoming an architect rather than a counselor would have been a good path. Regardless, you and I inspire our dwellings, create whatever we need them to be, and they can inspire us in return. They are, as in my baby grand piano fort so long ago, our places to be fully ourselves. Home.