A seasonal yearning - one more fresh start

On the first balmy weekend after a long New England winter, suburbanites are reveling in the end of their hibernation.

Walkers and joggers have returned to sidewalks and streets, savoring longer days and milder temperatures. Dogs, eager to run, strain at their leashes. Gardeners circle their yards, dreaming of flowers, while the rhythmic sound of rakes sweeping over still-brown grass fills the Saturday air.

But perhaps the best confirmation that spring has returned can be found in the proliferation of signs for two popular weekend sports: yard sales and open houses. Both events offer a fascinating sociological window on the powerful lure of Home Sweet Home.

Early Saturday morning, hand-lettered posters appear on telephone poles and lawns, tempting passersby with cheerful promises: "Giant garage sale today, 9 to 3! Great stuff!!" Cars screech to a stop and occupants spill out, searching for - what? The next treasure for the "Antiques Roadshow"?

Like the strata in an archaeological dig, objects displayed at yard sales can reveal the layers of a family's life and raise intriguing questions: Was that old blender a wedding gift? Do these children's clothes and well-used toys signal an empty nest? Are the owners moving?

Even those of us who can't quite imagine displaying our own castoffs on the driveway find pleasure in imagining the satisfaction these homeowners must feel as they survey their newly clutter-free basement or attic. Memo to self: Clean out the attic and call the Goodwill.

On Sunday afternoon, signs change and the economics of suburbia shift from pocket change to megabucks. "Open House, 1 to 3," reads the come-hither message in front of Colonials, Capes, and ranches. Inside, couples and families wander through rooms, making whispered observations about everything from the asking price to the wallpaper.

As real estate prices head for the stratosphere, the number of these visitors shows no sign of abating, at least on sunny days. But the broker's sign-in sheet on the kitchen table quietly reveals two groups. Serious house hunters write their names neatly and include an address and telephone number. The others - call them the merely curious - scribble their names almost illegibly as if to say, "Don't call us."

The chance to catch a glimpse of how other people live holds irresistible appeal. As open-house visitors study the layout of the house, its furnishings and decor, they are also, however unknowingly, studying their own homes, perhaps seeing them in a new, more appreciative light.

Spring is a season of fresh starts, a time when the nesting instinct and the longing for order runs strong. Out with the old, in with the new. Then again, is the new really necessary?

In his charming novella "The Clothes They Stood Up In," the British playwright Alan Bennett tells the tale of a sedate London couple, the Ransomes, who return from the opera one evening to find their flat stripped to the walls. Everything, absolutely everything is gone.

As a stunned Mrs. Ransome begins buying a few necessities to tide the couple over, she finds herself feeling strangely liberated by their lack of possessions. As Bennett writes, "When they had got married they had kitted themselves out with all the necessities of a well-run household.... They had transported this paraphernalia with them across 32 years of marriage ... and now at a stroke they were rid of the lot. Without quite knowing why, Mrs. Ransome suddenly burst out singing."

What homeowner, jettisoning excess possessions in a flurry of springtime zeal, can fail to appreciate Mrs. Ransome's feelings of lightness and freedom, however short-lived they might be?

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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