Tuesday, February 21, 2012

do we shape our houses or do they shape us?

Yesterday, we were driving back from spending the weekend in Boise, Idaho. I was pensive as we drove past fields (not as green as in the picture at this time of year) and noticed houses of all sorts: old and new, large and small, messy and tidy. As we passed one community after another, I looked at houses in subdivisions on the hills at the edge of town and those along the streets, next to shops and restaurants. I observed single-family homes and duplexes and apartment buildings. And as I watched I wondered: how much are we shaped by the places/spaces where we live and how much do we shape them to us?

I saw one farm house a small distance from the freeway, surrounded by fallow fields. The home itself looked to have been built in the 1940s, but it was neat and well maintained. Farm equipment was parked off to the side, and large trees had grown up around it to provide shade during the summer. I wondered: if I lived there, would I work on a farm? Or would I still be a teacher? Or would I do something altogether different? Would I furnish such a home with antiques? Or Early American? Or would I have any particular style? Would I be the same person I am now if I had grown up in that house as I am having grown up in a different place, a modest home but in a neighborhood of similar homes with smaller yards (no fields) and different furnishings?

We had been visiting my son and his wife and children in the Boise area. They have a relatively new home in a fairly new subdivision. But some of the furnishings are ones my grandmother passed along to my son, her great-grandchild. My grandmother had been born and raised in Idaho and returned there after retirement from the FAA in Alaska. Her homes in Alaska had been mostly modern in design and furnishings, but when she returned to Idaho, she gathered in some furnishings familiar to her, some Early American tables and chairs that probably were from her family home. Now they are in my son's home, making it seem a little less modern, a little less shaped by the house. And I wonder how much of what my son and his wife have brought into their home shape the home instead of it shaping them. They bring their pasts into the space, but it is a space that will house their future--and be the home their children remember as their past.

My uncle Joe (my grandmother's brother who never married) lived in the house where he (and my grandmother) grew up. It was a small home on a ranch outside of Boise. White wood on the outside, the inside space was mostly functional. The kitchen was the biggest room, but the living room was fairly spacious, if a little crowded with chairs and tables. Beds (at least to me as a child) were tremendously tall and took up almost the entire floor space of the bedrooms, places where my ancestors apparently didn't spend much time. Squeaky wooden floors were old when I was a girl. Worn linoleum (from the 40s or 50s?) covered the wood  floor in the kitchen where an old stove that used wood for cooking seemed central--until I was a teen and Joe was too bent from arthritis to use it anymore. The couches and chairs in the living room sucked you in when you sat in the indentations made by lots of bottoms over lots of generations: hard to get out of, once you got in, but then the visits to Joe's house were always long, slow ones anyway. Doilies covered many surfaces--some I have now, not because I use doilies so much as because I admired the intricate designs crocheted by fingers that were related to me in some way. If I had grown up in that house, would I have been different? Do the things I bring from that house to mine shape me? Or do I choose where I live because it reflects who I am now and what I am now? Raised in Alaska with gray days and long winter nights, I must have a home with lots of windows, lots of light. I prefer high ceilings so that I feel space, even if the rooms are not tremendously large. So, do I shape my space--choose it and furnish it--because of who I am and what I bring with me? Or do the spaces and places where I live shape me? Or is it some of both?


  1. I think some of both! I love to wonder as I travel -- how would my life be different if I grew up here? I have a feeling I would be a much different person if I grew up on a farm, or in the middle of a big city... and yet, I'm sure there are many things about me that would still be the same. Likewise, we definitely make each living space our own with decorations, organization, etc. both inside and out. Great thought-provoking post!

  2. So many ponderings, but all interesting to think about answering. We still live in the same house since our children were quite young & they are all grown up now in their own spaces with children. Our house (I think) has grown and changed as we have. We fixed first good things for young children, then for teens, then for guest rooms, and one bedroom is my husband's room for 'stuff'. Although it's just the two of us, we have spread out, so to speak, and use the extra closets for extra things, have added a roof to the front porch so we can sit there in all kinds of weather, and so on. Why did we choose this house personally. This time again for the kids. It's behind a park, near the school, within walking distance of the library and a grocery. We bought a neighborhood, not just the house. Well, your questions certainly started me thinking. Maybe next time you will tell why you are in your house?

  3. I have some furniture pieces which have been passed down through the generations to me, and I would say it is most certainly a combination of both. Thank you for bringing up such a random, yet thought-provoking topic.

  4. Hmmmmm, I love thinking about this. I can say with certainty that if I lived on a farm, I would not be working the land. I'm an indoor person. :) But I know a farmhouse would be the ultimate place for me - big porch, rockers, my husband's great great grandfather's table and the hand-me-down chairs around it. Interesting questions!