At Home Away From Home

I WANDER away from home several times a year. Some are planned journeys; others result from a letter or phone call. The adage about walking a mile in another's moccasins before judging his or her actions has validity. But nothing rivals housesitting for the pleasure of slipping unobtrusively into the lives of good friends. But that, of course, means leaving home. My own house is small, of basic construction, and furnished in clearance-center eclectic. A lovely view of a lake and the Adirondack Mountains is its chief asset. Its solitude in winter is a virtue for me. However, when my friends in the town down in the valley go for a couple of weeks to sunnier places and offer me a chance to housesit, I accept.

In many ways, my friends' house, with its 1839 plaque over the porch, is the antithesis of mine. One can hear fire sirens and the throaty horns of huge diesel trucks from Main Street a block away. But a stable and a barn, now turned into garages, give me an enlarged sense of the rural history of the area. The rooms are huge, light, and airy.

I settle in quickly after a tour of the house to see that my favorite carved, marble-topped antiques, Victorian photo portraits, and framed needlework are still in place. My friends live comfortably with the historicity of their ancestral house. They have ancestors on one side who fought in the American Revolution and have a vice president of the United States, the only famous personage of the town, on the other. While the past is visible in their home, so is the present, especially evident by a compute r.

When I step out onto the wide veranda which sweeps around the corner of the block I mentally run through the list of places I can get to on foot: the library for some art research, the bank, post office, dime store, drug store (which even sells bread and milk), homes of my friends. The only movie house in a 50-mile radius is also in the block. As I have been a city dweller most of my life, I much prefer the agile maneuvering of a pedestrian to the clumsy parking of a motorist.

Sometimes while I am here and running my errands, I feel a sense of continuity with my early childhood, when we lived in a village-like neighborhood at the edge of New York City. I remember my mother, in the course of her errands, stopping to chat with friends and shopkeepers.

In the evenings I attend literary lectures at the library or concerts at a church - events which I would pass up were I at home. I do things my friends might do. I slip into my friends' life, watering plants, taking in mail, playing fetch with the ecstatic mop-faced dog whose dinner recipe requires three different kinds of dog food. I recognize in their life my own appreciation of history and learn something of the importance of its maintenance as a living presence.

MORE occasionally I get a call from friends who live on an island on the rocky Connecticut shore. Their home was the first I ever house-sat in. At the time I was still living in Newark, N.J. The contrast between a deteriorating inner city - with its museum and public library serving as poignant reminders of past glory - and this superbly elegant exurban house was memorable.

Of all the houses I have seen in my lifetime, this one represents a perfect balance. Its low-slung exterior blends with its stunning surroundings, and its interior space is like a multileveled landscape. Dawn, made more luminous by the water, glows into the breakfast area through artfully placed windows, and sunset flames into the glassed patio where I eat dinner.

The view of rugged rocks, water, grass, and waves stimulates me to take photographs and sometimes even to sketch. Unlike the frozen lake by my home, there is always open water here for the ducks, cormorants, and geese. My friends have persuaded a pair of Canada geese that nests on a huge rock offshore to visit by providing parched corn and pans of water on the terrace. I wait eagerly for the big, subtly colored birds to appear.

A telescope is set up in a tall living room window for bird-watching. If I am here at the right season, there are two sizes of graceful white egrets stepping cautiously through the emerald sea grass around the rocks. Usually I cannot locate the little bobbing creature I am looking for, but even watching the gently swelling tides around the rocks is fascinating.

I experience a loosening of tensions I didn't know I had. This sun-warmed house seems to bask in its harmony and unostentatious luxury. I enjoy the whole ensemble - the rocks to climb over, the wildlife, the lovely interior - free of any desire for ownership.

A house should be used in a manner appropriate to itself. My friends continually fill this one with guests and all the entertaining that goes with them. My solitary ways would be a wasteful misuse of the beauty of this home.

Actually I am quite alone here, in spite of the fact that there are quite a few houses crowded on the island. But the warmth of my absent friends still permeates their house and it never occurs to me to feel lonely.

MY third home away from home is an apartment at the northern end of Manhattan Island, New York City. A real-estate agent would call it a studio, as would an artist: It is the one-room workshop of a friend who is a sculptor.

By coincidence it is located less than two blocks away from where I was born and spent my early childhood. The first time I stayed there, I walked and walked, marking the places I remembered.

I experienced a strange sense of dislocation, realizing the apartment building that had been my first home had vanished under a parking lot of the school next door, my first school. The apartment houses across the street that were dingy when I was a child were dingy still but, surprisingly, no dingier. The firehouse alongside them that was my terror and my delight as a tot was still there, but I doubted the firemen still provided showers from a hydrant for neighborhood kids during the summer.

I do not consider myself sentimental, but there was pleasure in matching my memories to contemporary reality. Changes had occurred, of course, but I was more struck by the number of places I could identify.

My friend's apartment is a delight. Every year that I go, there is less conventional furniture and more shelves for her bronzes, wax models, and equipment. Of all her works, my favorites are small sculptures of people she has encountered in Central Park. She companions me through them.

In the city I am busiest. My schedule is filled by exhibits in museums and galleries to see, meetings with friends, writing or giving a poetry reading, and rushing off on side trips. After that, it feels like time to go home.

ONE reason that I leave my tranquil setting in the Adirondacks so easily may be a deep-held knowledge that the return will renew the delight I felt when a real estate agent first showed me this house with the lake almost under the back porch. In a much-quoted poem, William Butler Yeats wrote despairingly, ``the centre cannot hold.'' If I carefully pack my sense of home and take it with me, it is my center and it holds. The starting out, the journeying, and the return are only arcs of a joined circle.

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