[Our house] had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with;
approvals, and solicitudes, and deep sympathies; it was of us, and
we were in its confidence, and lived in its grace and in the peace
of its benediction.
When my children were small, our family visited friends on a trip along the California coast. Eva, a mother of three, was recovering from chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Although she was unable to eat, she insisted on preparing brunch for us. The meal was wholesome and simple but lovingly served. Eva had been unable to garden that summer.
Nevertheless, there were pansies on the table, plucked from the corners of her yard, and a fresh lemon off a backyard tree, sliced for our water glasses. Relaxing on patio furniture, we talked and laughed, sharing an hour of sunshine, wondering if we would meet again on this earth.
When the children and I got into our Ford Pinto to leave, my two-year-old climbed into the backseat and announced emphatically, “I like those people. They have a nice warm!”
My toddler defined that day the threshold where wood, brick, and mortar are transformed into sacred space. A threshold is both a point of entry and a level above which something is true and below which it is not. A “nice warm” sensed upon entering someone’s home is not a matter of elaborate décor, parklike grounds, or gourmet cooking. It doesn’t take loads of time, energy, or money. Our friend Eva didn’t have those things. A “nice warm” starts with who you are, not with what you have. Engendered where your instinct for nesting meets your affection for other people, a “nice warm” is the threshold above which a house becomes a home.
If you wish to tap the enigma of what it means to emote a “nice warm,” start by finding the sacred play in every day—right where you are with what you have in your hands. After all, a child’s play is actually a child’s work, isn’t it? As a product of the 1950s and ’60s, when domesticity reigned in my home, my personal amusement usually involved playing house wherever I found a bit of space and solitude. On a tree stump in the sun, I baked mud pies filled with grass and mud, sprinkled with pebbles. The best mud could be made by pouring a bucketful of water into the soil behind the garage and beside the alley. I let it soak and turned my attention to the hollyhocks growing around the garbage cans.
My mother had taught me to make “ladies” of the blossoms—a large blossom for the skirt, a small one for the bodice, and a tiny one for the bonnet, all attached to the stem. These pink dolls decorated my tea table, a cardboard box where I later served mud concoctions to a three-year-old in briefs and cowboy boots. Soon my little brother was off again on his stick horse.
The spinster directly across from our home had a small white playhouse in her side yard. Immaculate and charming, it was the furthest thing from my mud dining room. Once she invited me, accompanied by my mother, inside. The playhouse was furnished with a child-sized table and chair set. On a doily lay dainty cups and saucers and a proper little teapot. It made me shiver with envy, although I had never seen anyone actually playing there. I never did hear the giggles of little girls spill out the windows. Perhaps the tiny cottage was just one woman’s way to fulfill a childhood fantasy and create a “nice warm” in her own imagination.
As much as I wished for a fully outfitted playhouse in my backyard, I was of pioneer background, resourceful and inventive. I made do. In a corner of our screened back porch, behind Grandma Daisy’s daybed, I walled in my own version, using chairs pulled from the kitchen. A shoe box lined with towels became my baby’s crib. There were plenty of infant clothes left from my sister and me; so what if they were too big for my Betsy? An orange crate became a kitchen counter. I begged a few battered wooden spoons and other utensils from my mother. But once, looking for decorating inspiration in the Sears and Roebuck catalog, I came across an adorable dollhouse. Finger-sized beds and bathtubs—and people, a whole family of them! It was then I first experienced what yearning was—not daring to believe anything so wonderful could ever be mine.
But experts say it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. I may never have the things I want from the Crate and Barrel catalog. Yet I cross the threshold for a “nice warm” by exploring the possibilities of making a home in the house I have. My house is red with white trim, a dark green door, and green window boxes. This year, with help from friends, I am going to make some changes: add scalloped shingles under the eaves, paint the exterior a cream color with white trim, and pull out all the stops for a bright red door.
My home is just a cottage, but it’s located on an acre among ponderosa pines replete with singing birds. Blue and yellow wildflowers make their appearance in the spring. I often stop to appreciate the fact that although my house is not impressive, my eyes can roam an undomesticated landscape. Lots of critters play in the tall grass. From the office window at the back side of my home, I can see one of the smaller mountains in the Cascade range, Black Crater, snowcapped three seasons of the year. I keep on my desk the lava stones I picked up on a hike to its summit. They remind me that a view from the top—symbolizing the summits of my life—is worth the exhausting effort.
Occasionally my Pollyanna optimism about my humble residence gets deflated. I sometimes envy my close friend Abby, another single mom who lives nearby in a custom chateau with a view of the magnificent Three Sisters mountains. I know she too understands that a home is not about external realities but about the quality of perception and devotion. An attitude of passionate engagement combined with what is possible goes a long way. As much as I love dreaming over household wares from Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware, I’m fully aware that a “nice warm” does not come out of a catalog or with a mountain view. It is helped along by mud-pie mentality, the kind of thinking that can create chocolaty confections from raw material at the end of the garden.
Corporate psychology tells us that businesses encouraging playfulness in the workplace are more productive and bottom-line effective. The principle can be applied elsewhere, not least of all in our daily routine of maintaining a home. The work goes easier with a dose of reverent play. Why not give free rein to this holy occupation? Amuse and entertain yourself within the walls of your home using what you already have to serve your family and guests.
“Bless what you do and what you have,” I tell myself. See even the scarred, chipped, and weathered things as sacred—sacred because they bear to your family the significance of repetitive use in making a house a home. What could be more ordinary or profane, for example, than the family bathroom? The one in my house needs restoration badly. I finally noticed this when the last of my children left home. No longer distracted by the comings and goings of people constantly using this room, it became obvious that something was wrong. Using a large can of joint compound, I repaired the drywall where the commode tank sprayed water with each flush. After it dried I painted the buffeted walls a buttery yellow and the ceiling a bright white, then decorated the room with a dragonfly motif. Nothing short of winning a small lottery will allow me to fix the dilapidated sink and bathtub/shower used through fifteen years of hectic bedtime and morning rituals. I dream of brand-new Kohler faucets with elegant retro designs; it takes little to envision a sparkling white tile floor to replace the bruised and beaten linoleum.
Then I remember that old-fashioned “nice warm” doesn’t cost a dime. I think back to the laughter in this tub when little pink bodies floated in iridescent foamy bliss. Who could forget the toilet overflowing during slumber parties to the hilarious shrieks of oodles of kids? Year after year the room was packed with giddy teenage girls doing one another’s makeup and hair for proms. As I scrub aging bathroom fixtures with Ajax and all the playful attitude I can muster, I amuse myself by thinking of the family legacy that makes the profane profound.
Making a house a home is limited only by boundaries of resourcefulness and imagination, the soul of a structure. Creating a “nice warm” is what you make of what you have. It is the threshold people pass to hang a hat or a heart or a hollyhock lady.
Storytelling is medicine for the soul, and families are the guardians of community and culture. So when we spark memories for each other, even on sensitive topics, we create an environment in which healing may start.
You can inspire others by sharing the historical context of your life and your values, experiences, accumulated life wisdom, and insights. Stories also mend rifts between generations or individuals, because when you honor what was good, you find how to forgive what was bad and reconcile with your past.
Read anew the biblical legacy of this tradition as recorded in Genesis 49.
Create an heirloom document for your loved ones. Whether your personal history is written or passed along orally through a video or cassette tape, your reminiscing is a vital exercise for the spirit. Writing your memoirs, particularly at a turning point, in midlife, or toward the end of a long life, will preserve the most valuable resource you can give your loved ones: the love and wisdom you brought to this world. You’ll find joy and surprise, as will others.
Get ready for the adventure, then, and let the following tips guide you in preserving your personal and family pearls.
Gather the strongest memories that lie on the surface of your experience.
Listen compassionately to yourself. Jump-start your reflections by bringing to mind
• turning points and defining moments and your emotive responses;
• times you felt strong emotions, ecstasy or despair;
• what you’re concerned about or believe;
• what you’re grateful for, things you’ve learned early or late in life;
• family anecdotes, sayings, traditions, and recipes;
• vacation chronicles and journals from trips or birthday parties;
• what your house or hometown looked like and your favorite things about it;
• your favorite books, movies, music, clothes, and places;
• people who influenced you and how they changed you;
• what you will regret not having done if you don’t live long enough;
• hopes and dreams for loved ones.
Write or record your memories at random. Start with the most vivid things in your memory or the things that meant the most to you. Work your way to the vaguer memories and then to the very faint. Just record what comes to you and don’t stress over what you don’t remember. Now thread these together into a treasured work of art. Pen or type them on separate pieces of paper and compile by date, starting furthest back. Attach one to the other by metal clip rings from a stationery store just as they are. You may want to copy the pages and present a chain of them as a gift to family members for a special occasion.
Create a personal time capsule by gathering personal mementos, writing small notes recording what each item means to you, and storing them in an airtight mouse-proof box for safekeeping. Include a love letter to family members you may never meet, such as great-grandchildren or grandnieces and grandnephews, telling them what you would most like them to know about you.