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Essay: What makes a house feel like home?

A simple question inspires an earnest, happy search for the answer.

By Eudora Seyfer / February 22, 2008

Scott Wallace - staff

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If you were starting over in an empty house without any of your accumulated belongings, what would you need to make it feel like home?

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That's the question four of us, longtime good friends, were discussing over a cup of tea. And the question continued nonstop in my thoughts after our tea-drinking stopped and I went home.

Understand – my home is my joy, my hobby, my comfort. I love the antique clock on the mantel, the family photographs that make me smile, our wedding-gift silver that can turn a plain meal into a celebration, the handed-down Blue Willow platter that has held the Thanksgiving turkey for generations. I love to arrange and rearrange, to add a flower here, a candle there, to feel happy and snug with a book of Emily Dickinson's poems, to fling open the windows in the spring and light the first fire in the fireplace in the fall.

So how would I – how could I – start over? After the necessary stove and refrigerator and sofa and beds were in place, what would I need to add in order to turn a house into our special home?

I've decided that the first thing I would look for would be a big family dining table – big enough for all of us, plus extra leaves to add for relatives and friends. That's because so many of our special times have been when we've all been together around the table. It's where we giggle and laugh and sing "Happy Birthday to You"; where we celebrate small things such as an 'A' in arithmetic and a home run in the ninth inning, and momentous things like a promotion at work or a college degree; where we soothe one another's hurts; and quiet our worries. And it's where we share our dreams, because when families share their dreams, everyone pitches in to make them come true, and miracles fan out from family dining tables like magic.

Our home would need an old-fashioned fireplace. I know most people prefer the modern no-sparks, no-smoke gas kind, but we would need the type with burning logs that crackle and glow red and smell of wood smoke. It's where we always gather on bad-weather days to play Monopoly or work on a jigsaw puzzle or just read. It's where we daydream – where little girls can be Jo March or Nancy Drew and little boys can be Davy Crockett or George Patton. And where grown-ups can think wonderful things into being. Above the hearth in one of his homes, Frank Lloyd Wright inscribed the words, "Around these hearth stones, speak no evil word of any creature." Before a roaring fire, only good thoughts belong.

There would be an awful emptiness if the books we love were missing from our home, so I'd search for a great big bookcase to hold books. Slowly, we would reaccumulate the books we cherish – from "A Child's Garden of Verses," "The Little Engine that Could," and "Goodnight Moon" to books by Dickens, Twain, Hemingway, and Frost.

I'd buy pillows for our sofa. Silly? Probably, but pillows always create that put-your-head-back-and-your-feet-up feeling. Pillows say, "Don't worry, everything will be fine." I'd mix and match them: big red and white checks and blue toile and golden plaids. Lots of them – puffy and pretty and therapeutic.

We would need a yardstick in order to start a new measuring wall – out in the kitchen, probably behind a door, where children are measured, where year after year, and the inches march upward on the wall to show how tall they have become. It's where they stretch with all their might and where futures are fashioned with the words, "When I grow up..."

We'd need green plants in our home because they make everything feel fresh and vital. I'd put a pair of topiaries on the mantle, a basket of ivy in a corner, and never-fail philodendron on the coffee table. On the porch, I'd put a big pot of yellow and purple pansies in the spring, bright red geraniums in the summer, golden chrysanthemums in the fall, and a wreath of greens in December. If possible, I'd plant a lilac bush just outside the kitchen window where its "spring is here" aroma would fill the air when I fling open the window in May.

Just for me, I'd search for another old-fashioned desk like the one I've had forever, a desk that's the heart of our home, where I sort the clutter from my days and tend to matters that matter. It's where I plan birthday parties, address invitations, and arrange holiday celebrations; where I write thanks for kindnesses and praise for accomplishments; and where, before I go to bed on Sunday nights, I turn a tangle of details into a plan for the week ahead. Then, when I turn the light off beside my desk, life seems orderly in my little world within the world.

Finally, I'd go to an antique shop and find a china teapot and a few pretty teacups so I could invite my old friends over for a cup of tea. And we could talk and talk about subjects such as, "What makes a house a home?"

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