In security-conscious America, opening a home to strangers is sometimes hard to do, particularly if these strangers might number 1,000 or more in a single day. Yet scores of homeowners across the United States do just that when throwing out the welcome mat in celebration of an annual rite of spring and summer - the state or local house and garden tour.
For many, agreeing to list their house on a tour comes only after careful deliberation. Unquestionably, the cause is good - the money acquired through the sale of tickets will go to preservation and other worthwhile projects. And a certain amount of status and prestige accrues from the tour.
But for first-timers the uncertainty of what to expect can be considerable. Will any valuables disappear? Will the floors be damaged or an artifact broken? Home insurance companies are not overjoyed by any unusual use of a house and sometimes balk at guaranteeing coverage for the tour day.
Nevertheless, a compelling reason to show a house that frequently overrides these concerns is a deep desire to share with others - a sharing of the heart rather than of the pocketbook. In areas where the tradition of home tours is well-established, such as in the South, it's quite easy to decide to reveal a personal side of oneself.
''When preparing for a house tour, you have to have everything ready at once. It's a commitment for all the family,'' says Carol Mylander of Burrages End, a 17th-century storybook house in southern Maryland.
Husbands, wives, and children pitch in to wash the floors, walls, and windows during the winter and early spring. (My wife and I were amazed to learn that we had 674 windowpanes to wash while preparing for the tour.)
At last the big day comes. Hostesses and parking assistants arrive before the doors officially open. Hostesses, with name tags in place, receive a final briefing on the history or importance of the house and the significance of its furnishings. The parking plan is reviewed. Everything is set.
Then the guests appear. First they come in a trickle of twos and fours, then in a steady stream that occasionally reaches a flood stage.
They walk carefully through the rooms, asking countless questions and sometimes getting more than they bargained for in return. Patti Hutchinson, who lives in a 50-year-old estate in southern Maryland, is aware of what can happen if a hostess is asked a question she doesn't know the answer to. ''Only on the house tour can a brass chandelier that is modern in the morning turn into a 200 -year-old antique by afternoon,'' she quips.
Occasionally, an unexpected event tests the ingenuity of a homeowner.
Lewis Andrews, owner of the grand estate, Tulip Hill, which commands a spectacular view of the Chesapeake Bay, responded calmly and with grace to one situation. While escorting a group of women back to their car, Mr. Andrews and his guests suddenly stopped in their tracks when they saw a snake snuggled around the hubcap.
''Don't worry, that's only Charlie,'' Mr. Andrews said reassuringly. He convinced the snake to coil itself around a stick he had fetched and threw both stick and snake over the fence. That was that.
Whatever the thrills, the tour fulfills a social and cultural purpose and brings much personal satisfaction. Elaine Bridgeman, who lives in a 17th-century , medieval-style home near the Chesapeake Bay, believes that when historical homes are opened they provide a unique opportunity to ''propagate values that have survived from another era. This is not just how things were done in the past,'' she says, ''but how values and ways of the past are being used today, when many of us want to simplify our lives.''