The Childhood Home as Destiny

Photo by Paul Bence at Unsplash

Conjure up the house where you grew up and you will instantly recall the friendships you made in grammar school, the scars you got on the playing field, your first passion for poetry or microscopes, the day you felt the first pangs of regret, the moment you realized that you were capable of love.    

As Rilke observed,  “Perhaps it’s no more than the fire’s reflection on some piece of gleaming furniture that the child remembers so much later like a revelation.”   Yet that revelation can shape an entire life.

The poet Louise Bogan associates her childhood home with her love of reading: “Why do I remember this house as the happiest in my life?…It was the house wherein I began to read, wholeheartedly and with pleasure. It was the first house where bookshelves appeared as a part of the building.  It is a house to which I return, in a recurrent dream…I rearrange the house from top to bottom:  new curtains on the windows, new pictures on the walls. But somehow the old rooms are still there—like shadows seeping through. Indestructible.” 


Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Just how predictive is that first house of the talents we might one day nurture? Ernest Hemingway’s boyhood home in Oak Park, Illinois is a spacious Victorian.  Ernest spent much of his time on the second floor which contained a mini-museum where his father, Dr. Clarence Hemingway, kept his wildlife specimens. The family also had a house on Walloon Lake, a place to hunt and fish.  Some of Hemingway’s best work dealt with nature, including “The Old Man and the Sea” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”  His homes — from Key West to Cuba and Idaho —  were always spacious and open to the great outdoors.

By Teemu008 from PalErnest Hemingway's Birthplace Photo by AlbertHerring, CC BY-SA 2.0,
Hemingway with sons, and kittens, in Cuba

William Faulkner’s childhood home in Oxford, Mississippi was a cottage set back from the road and shaded by tall trees. As a boy, Faulkner liked to draw and write poetry. He spent so much time lost in his own imagination that he never finished school.  After the success of his first novel in the 1930s, he restored a run-down Georgian mansion and even bought a nearby forest, creating a grander version of his family home.  He never left Oxford, the place that inspired the fictional Yoknapatawpha County in his best-known books.

Faulkner's boyhood home in Oxford, Mississippi
Faulkner's home Rowan Oak, completely rebuilt from a ruin in Oxford, Mississippi. By Wescbell, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Gertrude Stein’s childhood house in the Allegheny West neighborhood of Pittsburgh is square and spatulate,  just as she herself appears in a well-known portrait by Picasso. The house itself is so utilitarian it demands an act of the imagination.   A set of plates, a decanter, an umbrella and a cushion took on lives of their own and  became Stein’s childhood props.  As an adult, Stein was a marvelous mix of the practical and the sublime.   She dressed in drab brown corduroy and her Paris salon drew such luminaries as Apollinaire, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gris, Joyce, and Matisse.  The walls of her atelier at 27 rue de Fleurus were hung floor to ceiling with now-famous paintings, the doors of her dining room lined with Picasso sketches. On a typical Saturday evening Stein sat in a high-backed Renaissance chair next to a cast-iron stove that barely heated the room, while her brother Leo held forth on the  latest experiments in modern art.   

The Pittsburgh home where Stein spent her early years.
Pablo Picasso, PD-US,

Interior Comforts

Of course, the childhood home can be as troubling as it is evocative.  The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott once treated a small boy whose parents were under great strain after the birth of their second child. The household was in chaos with a squalling infant who never slept. Nerves were frayed, and rest a rare commodity.  The parents argued and even considered separating.  One day the boy tied the legs of the chairs and tables in together with a ball of string.  Winnicott explained that this was the child’s way of pulling the household back together.  

It’s not unusual for children to perform household chores as a kind of magical ritual of renewal.   As her parents argued late at night, one young girl tiptoed from her bedrooms to begin her secret tidying. In the wee hours, she cleaned the kitchen counters, then picked up the living room, plumping up the cushions,  and putting all the magazines into a pristine pile.   Like Winnicott’s boy with string,  she performed these tasks, hoping to keep her family intact.  

When people fail us, we often turn for comfort to a familiar portion of the house. In Banana Yoshimoto’s poignant novel Kitchen, a young girl finds solace in the hum of the refrigerator, curling up on the floor next to its thrumming motor. “When my grandmother died the other day,” she confides, “I was taken by surprise.  My family had steadily decreased one by one as the years went by, but when it suddenly dawned on me that I was all alone, everything before my eyes seemed false. The fact that time continued to pass in the usual way in this apartment where I grew up, even though now I was here all alone, amazed me…Three days after the funeral I was still in a daze. Steeped in a sadness so great I could barely cry, shuffling softly in gentle drowsiness, I pulled my futon into the deathly, silent gleaming kitchen.  Wrapped in a blanket, like Linus, I slept.  The hum of the refrigerator kept me from thinking of my loneliness.”

The girl goes on to describe her attachment to the kitchen in her grandmother’s house—a room that has long provided her with a deep sense of safety and security:  “The place I like best in this world is the kitchen.  No matter where it is, no matter what kind, if it’s a kitchen, if it’s a place where they make food, it’s fine with me.  Ideally it should be well broken in. Lots of tea towels, dry and immaculate.  White tile catching the light (ting! ting!)  I love even incredibly dirty kitchens to distraction—vegetable droppings all over the floor, so dirty your slippers turn black on the bottom. Strangely, its better if this kind of kitchen is large.  I lean up against the silver door of a towering, giant refrigerator stocked with enough food to get through a winter.”

Most affecting is the way the girl feels held and comforted by this particular room.  “When I raise my eyes from the oil-spattered gas burner and the rusty kitchen sink, outside the window stars are glittering, lonely…Now only the kitchen and I are left. It’s just a little nicer than being all alone.” 

Painting by Robert Kipniss, The Old Print Shop, New York, NY


Filmmaker John Waters on his childhood home

Hairspray director John Waters used his family’s suburban home as a movie studio.  In a recent article for Lapham’s Quarterly he describes the artistic freedom he achieved in his parents’ house and how it allowed him to create his own inner world.

Does anyone ever forget the first room you were allowed to make your own? As a kid, I was lucky enough to have my own bedroom far enough away from my parents or brother and sisters that spying on me was nearly impossible. All I ever wanted to be was the rock-and-roll king. When I first saw Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1957, twitching and moaning “Heartbreak Hotel,” I was almost eleven but immediately knew I was gay. Then the decorator gene kicked in. Down from my walls came the family’s tasteful Audubon prints and up went glossy head shots of the Everly Brothers, Tab Hunter, and the Platters (one of whom sported a pencil mustache). I nagged my mom and dad into buying me a reel-to-reel tape recorder so I could be an early pirate and tape all the hits off the radio without having to wait to buy them. Then I’d play these rockabilly and rhythm-and-blues numbers over and over as I danced around my room lip-synching, gyrating, and talking to myself. Finally I had a think tank.My parents were probably concerned, but they threw caution to the wind and built me a little stage at the top of the second-floor steps on a landing outside my bedroom so I could act out whatever show-business fantasies I was entertaining.... I immediately imagined myself dressed as Robin Hood’s enemy, the Sheriff of Nottingham, or Captain Hook himself, but I also tore the women’s clothes apart and draped the ratty rags around my shoulders, pretending I was a contestant who was just handed the prize mink coat from Bess Myerson on my favorite TV show, The Big Payoff. Confused neighborhood children and a very indulgent relative, Aunt Rachel, would watch as I threw myself around the stage, mouthing Elvis lyrics and swiveling my hips in pitiful fits of exhibitionism. Something was the matter with me. Yet having this creative little safe area in my childhood home gave me the confidence to grow into later neurotic maturity and happiness. 

St. George and the Dragon, Lewis Carroll 1875. From the Metropolitan Museum, Gilman Collection.

Recommended Reading

Journey Around My Room by Louise Bogan     

Novel Destinations: Literary Landmarks from Jane Austen’s Bath to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West by Shannon McKenna Schmidt

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

Three Lives by Gertrude Stein

Kitchen by Banana Yosimoto

Mr. Know it All by John Waters

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