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.”
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.
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.
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 Fleuruswere 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.
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.”
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.
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