Home sweet home (?)

Memory not only wears rose-colored glasses, but they tend to slide down the nose. One can't trust memory the way one can trust old home movies. That sagging front porch obviously needed paint. That slightly overweight woman standing in the doorway holding a brown paper bag full of garbage is Ma. And there's Pa without a shirt.

And inside, according to my memory, there was a ''Home Sweet Home'' message on the wall. It might have been stenciled, painted, done in needlepoint, embroidered, or even just printed and set in a natural wood frame with the bark still on it. More often than not, it was dusty.

I am not totally against nostalgic mottoes. I just sometimes wonder if ''sweet'' is the right modifier. If something is too sweet it makes my face pucker. We all secretly know home wasn't exactly the way we remember it, but maybe that's the way memory should be.

Evidently it all got started in an opera, Clari, the Maid of Milanm, back in 1823. Unfortunately, the maid sang an aria called ''Home Sweet Home'' (we all know the tune) somewhere in the performance; and opera, being what it is, had people standing in their seats in a frenzy of nostalgic appreciation. We can understand why. But we also know that nothing is further from reality than what goes on in an opera.

But there it is. That maid probably had an untidy, one-bedroom, no-bath apartment made of cracked, pink stucco back in Milan, but it seemed like ''Home Sweet Home'' after living out of a trunk for 30 years. Take E.T. Home was the first word the visitor from space wanted to communicate, and it might have been only a hollow lump of smoldering sulfur, with the same motto printed on asbestos.

Memory of home is a security blanket for some. For me it is just a crazy quilt. I don't remember anyone in the family actually saying, ''I certainly think this is a very sweet home.'' Not even on those evenings, before television , when we pulled taffy.

It might be necessary to explain to younger readers that taffy was not one of the children. It was a type of candy, which, in the process of making, has to be pulled and stretched. Everyone had his hands buttered so the candy wouldn't stick to them, but you couldn't butter everything. Your hair, for instance. So ''wild'' came out ahead of ''sweet.''

Shakespeare said, ''Sweet are the uses of adversity,'' and this might fit the case of my own home.

For instance, there was a time we sat down to a dinner of spinach sandwiches, because the dog had eaten the roast. While it is true he was only a four-pound dog, he apparently ate a six-pound roast, including bones and gravy. At the time , no one smiled and said it was ''sweet.''

One day our four-year-old, No. 2 son disappeared.

After we spent hours looking for him, a neighbor phoned and said she had been driving past the house and noticed a small child playing cowboy up on the roof. Sweet now, maybe, not then.

One would also have to include the time the pigs got loose. It is too long a story to tell here, but it ended up with my wife carrying a pig by its hind legs through a neighbor's lawn party. Things like this aren't easily explained to city people. Relationships got back to normal after a while, but it took years before the event seemed even semi-sweet.

Nor does anyone forget the days when our children went to school in a car pool. Once when it was our turn to drive, friend wife sped off in a hurry to avoid making everyone late. Only she left our own children at home. How would Webster define something like that? It doesn't seem to fit the definition of sweet: ''Having a generally agreeable taste, smell, sound, appearance, etc.''

Even today, with the offspring grown and on their own, our home isn't pure sugar. Just the other night, after brushing my teeth, I took the usual drink from the plastic cup I keep in a wall holder for that purpose. Suddenly I felt like one of those TV ads where the plumbing backs up.

''What was in my glass?'' I gurgled, wishing my words, if they were to be my last, could be more profound.

Friend wife sleepily considered the matter.

''Oh, it's all right. I must have put shampoo in your glass while I was diluting the bottle.''

It was impossible to indicate sufficient sweetness with a mouth full of suds, so I stumbled off to bed.

Before lights-out she looked over at me. ''Bubbles are coming out of your nose,'' she giggled.

Evidently there are other times when ''home sweet home'' misses the mark, because people also say, ''Home is where the heart is,'' or ''It takes a heap o' livin'. . . .'' There is even ''Give me a home where the buffalo roam.'' But John Howard Payne, in his Clari, the Maid of Milanm, insisted that home was sweet and there was no place like it.

How sweet it is, then! But every so often I wonder what Clari's pad in Milan was really like.

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