TWENTY years ago this month, a moving van rolled up to a white Colonial in suburban Boston and unloaded a young family's modest possessions. The day before, with a mixture of trepidation and jubilation, the husband and wife had signed the mortgage - their first - committing themselves to 30 years of monthly payments on this seven-room house.
It had taken months of reading ads, talking to brokers, and trekking through a blur of ranches, Capes, and Colonials to find a house that fit their budget and their needs. The couple quickly learned the first law of middle-class home-buying - that the house of your dreams is seldom the house within your means. But by moving day, they hardly minded that the kitchen was out of date and the closets were small. This was home.
The anniversary of a mortgage, especially one that is still being paid off, hardly ranks as one of the great events in a family's life. Yet in an age of mobility, escalating housing costs, and growing homelessness, it is enough to prompt a suburbanite to reflect on the changing, sometimes elusive state of home ownership in the 1990s.
Nearly 45 years ago, Cary Grant starred in the film "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House," the story of a New York advertising man who longs to live in the Connecticut countryside. How simple the process appears on celluloid: Hire an architect and build a house from scratch according to your own specifications. Yet how difficult it seems for all but the rich to do the same today.
For those in Mr. Blandings's postwar era who couldn't afford an architect, another option existed - a Levittown-style tract house. At the time, even people of modest means could dream of buying a simple home that would be a steppingstone to something grander. Now that the median price of an existing home is $100,900, even a starter house becomes precious and often unexpectedly permanent.
In 1972, when the couple in the white Colonial bought their house, a majority of banks still refused to include a wife's salary in considering mortgage-loan applications. Today, almost all the families who have moved into the neighborhood in recent years probably could not have qualified for their mortgage without a second paycheck.
No wonder young people are remaining at home - or returning - in record numbers! Census Bureau figures show that 18 million single adults between the ages of 18 and 34 still live with their parents, a figure that has increased 10 percent in the past decade.
For other families, owning a house is no guarantee of being able to keep it in recessionary times. Surely the saddest advertisements in metropolitan newspapers these days are those appearing in the classifieds under the heading "Mortgagee's Sale of Real Estate at Public Auction." A recent Boston Sunday Globe carried 11 pages of such listings, silent evidence of those who have, for now at least, lost their claim on a particular address.
From Mr. Levitt's cookie-cutter tracts to Mr. Blandings's custom-designed residence, a home of one's own is the stuff of dreams and stereotypes - of picket fences, manicured lawns, crackling fires, and cozy domesticity. It is a dream fed by movies and TV, and by "shelter" magazines displaying rooms decorated to expensive perfection. It is also a dream nourished by the longing for stability and roots, a longing every bit as intense in housing projects as in pastoral subdivisions. For that reason alone, ph rases like "affordable housing" and "safe neighborhoods" deserve to be more than sound bites in an election year.
Every satire of suburbia begins with the lawn - that tiny square of spoon-fed, coddled, and hedged-in grass, tended as if it were a country estate. This is the dream behind the Blandings dream - the romantic hope that by connecting to birds and trees and flowers, the homeowner will connect to life. This yearning for the presence of things earthy, fragrant, and growing cannot be laughed away - in the city any more than in the suburbs. In the city, every geranium in a window box, every tree planted among b roken bricks tries to create its own minisuburb.
For the children and grandchildren of the Blandings and Levitt generations, the symbolism may have to shrink thus ever smaller. But not to worry. Since the final object of the search is peace, the sometimes comic but always serious tradition is destined to continue of building a protective circle of space to call home.