What is in a Home?

This week a dear high school friend messaged me to say she had driven past the home of my childhood, down the street from her lifelong home. The new owner (only the second owner) was putting the finishing touches on a Little Free Library in the lot’s corner. The library matched our mid-century modern house architecturally: pristine white trim on redwood, echoes of Frank Lloyd Wright‘s prairie style. We were pleased in 2015 that this second owner was from Oak Park (Illinois—Wright’s suburban Chicagoland home) and even had volunteered with Wright’s foundation in Madison, Wisconsin. It appeared she along with her husband and elderly mother, did not scoop up the home in order to make it over, but to appreciate it’s light, space, and warm earthy materials and design.

The house was built in 1953 by my Uncle Bill, an accomplished architect, after my paternal grandfather had died. My dad and he had put their heads together to find a suitable lot for a spacious home where our family of five (later six) could live with our grandmother, only 55 at the time.

Nana with her boys; my dad on the right, next to Uncle Bill
4th of July with Nana (wearing the string or pearls), aunts, and cousins, Dad outside the porch behind

The result was an L-shaped two-story, three bedroom home for us attached to a single story, one bedroom home for Nana, with it’s own kitchen, bathroom, dining and living areas. (Nana liked to entertain her friends for lunch and bridge.) We had a roomy screened porch, where we mostly lived in the summer; Nana had her own patio alongside the roses, under a dark green awning. We shared dual laundry areas in the full basement, a two car garage, a wrap-around perennial garden, and the shade of seven enormous elm trees lining the intersection. The back garden separated us from a pair of neighbors who built after us but remained in place for 60+ of the years we occupied “303,” as our home affectionately came to be known.

Almost all of our family lived within 50 miles, most within ten. The house was well filled for holidays, summer reunions, cousin sleepovers, for scout meetings, and for relatives and friends who would “call.” My mother came to say in her later years what she missed most about the past was people calling on one another, meaning they would stop by on a Sunday afternoon, stop over for cocktails early Saturday evening, neighbors popping onto the porch anytime to visit, never mind phoning ahead. We loved the evening barbecues especially, when parents and grandparents played bridge on the porch while we ran around in the dark like “wild Indians” (a regrettable expression) playing “Yoller-yoller, hear I come so holler!”—our version of hide and seek—and catching lightning bugs in jars.

We lived a half mile from our grade school, a little over a mile from the junior high, and a mile from the high school. We walked back and forth to school through most weather. When the thermometer dipped below ten degrees Fahrenheit, my mom consented to drive us and pick us up. No arguments about that. If we wanted a ride, my mom would say, “Check the thermometer.” Throughout our studies at the university “downstate,” we’d be back for Thanksgivings, Memorial Days, semester breaks, any time we didn’t have class, picking up waitress hours at the local BigBoy restaurant.

My sisters and I all moved out of the area after college and eventually started families in other cities, other homes. Interestingly we have all been in our current homes for decades, though they all resettled within a 3-hour drive of 303. We stayed out west, a place where they call my homeland “back east.” As Mom and Dad aged, they remained at home. Caregivers came in, my sisters rotated weekends there, while my flights and longer stays became more and more frequent. As our parents became more incapacitated and we installed accessibility equipment, the house gave up some of its sleekness, but it retained its nurturing magic.

Dad passed away (after Mom) six years ago this month, suddenly, but not so suddenly, at the age of 91. We flew back over the 4th of July and in August, when we had a musical hoohah with my brother-in-law (who plays like George Harrison on acoustic), my son, and oldest grandson on guitars. We came back again in October and again at Christmas, sleeping there the weekend of my older sister and brother-in-law’s annual Christmas party a few miles north. We made breakfast for the family at 303 the next day. The house was at its best, looking chic with its large rooms, classic fixtures, and now-trendy mid-century modern furnishings. By June it was stripped back nearly to its native state, as Mom and Dad had entered it in 1953, and by September, our new owners had made their offer.

The little library woman told my friend I could come by and walk through the house when I’m back; she’d love to visit. I suspect she’s a woman after my mom’s heart, salt of the earth. I had heard she welcomed all the neighbors for a housewarming the Spring after they took possession. A new neighborhood has been established. It warms me, but with a pang. Today when my daughter called to FaceTime with our new granddaughter, I choked up telling her all of this.

It has always struck me how the French have no word for the English home. They can say chez moi or à la maison, but not our home, with its connotations of coziness, of “where I belong,” a place of the heart. No. They name their out-in-the-country family homes Le Moulin and such. Maybe that does the trick. Or maybe what makes a house a home is when you choke up realizing you could lose or have lost it. When you think about it, is your home where you live?

On losing a place

Monday evening in Paris is mid-morning in my West Coast home. It was a chilly first day of Holy Week, the week before Easter, and as I wrote and drank coffee beside the fireplace, a message from my daughter in Paris popped up on my screen: this photo.

It was the gut punch felt round the world. The roof of Notre Dame in Paris was disappearing in flames. A second message, from a friend in Bretagne, provided a French TV link, so we watched. And watched.

We grimly viewed feeble water spouts shot from the street; they seemed only to fuel the nightmare. We saw smoke pour through a stained glass window. We witnessed the 19th-century spire’s collapse and an aerial view of Our Lady’s interior engulfed in flames.


I knew the Crown of Thorns was cherished as most valued relic of the treasures inside. I remembered waiting in line one Good Friday to venerate this relic, now encased in an acrylic sheath. I knew it would be on display this Friday for veneration by the faithful and inspection by the curious. The Easter Vigil would be slotted for six days hence, Saturday at 8:00 p.m.—à vingt heures—with the caveat: Would Notre Dame survive?

More than a decade earlier, two of my high school kids and I had spent Holy Week in France, wandering from Paris to Poitiers to Tours and back to Paris—and Notre Dame. I now relived every detail of that week, beginning with Palm Sunday, when church bells across the city rang incessantly from ten in the morning til after noon. We were staying on the rue des Écoles on the Left Bank at the time, a five minute walk to the Seine and Point Zéro, the marker in front of Notre Dame from which all distances in France are measured.


That Palm Sunday we saw families strolling home from mass with their armloads of branches. At home in the U.S., we pinch a couple of scrawny palm leaves between thumb and forefinger as we enter the church on Palm Sunday. At home there are no palm branches. In France the faithful embrace arms full of boxwood boughs to round out lavish white rose and lily bouquets for Easter Sunday’s afternoon feast.

The following weekend we joined the Saturday vigil. Imagining the cathedral would be packed, we arrived an hour early and selected seats halfway back from the altar. The great space was lit only by fading daylight. Each woven chair held a small white candle. A cupped paper fleur-de-lis encircling the candle would capture wax drippings as mass proceeded. (Some would catch on fire, their owners blowing frantically mid-mass to put them out.)

Daylight continued to dim. I stared into the vault, studying ribbed arches, the exquisite, now darkened, candelabra strung along the ambulatory. I imagined the hunchback gazing down from the choir far overhead. The crowd silenced in the blackened space as Cardinal Lustiger, himself a converted Jew, lit the paschal fire, soon blazing alongside the altar, flames leaping, casting wavering shadows and a vista of Notre Dame’s architectural bones.

Gradually, lit from the paschal fire, an unwieldy five-foot Easter baptismal candle flame would spread to each of our tapers until the flickering sanctuary reflected each face radiant with surprised, expectant joy.

The rest is as you might envision. This Feast of Feasts ended with the pipe organ pulling out all stops, dissonant chords echoing off the ancient stones. As we departed, close to midnight that vigil of Easter, the bells of Notre Dame burst forth again, and a group of Nigerians re-lit their candles and sang and danced on the parvis under the bell towers. We stopped along Île St. Louis for un cornet, a cone, of Berthillon sorbet, meandered “home” to our quartier across the Seine, and tucked in feeling filled up, complete. We slept with our windows open to the street sounds and smells of Paris at Easter.

Now we have the same iconic photo images of “our” Notre Dame as in anyone’s personal scrapbook: the cathedral from across the quai from St. Julien-le-Pauvre, or from beyond the flying buttresses to the garden of Pope St. John XXIII, where we would gnaw ham and gruyère baguette sandwiches and drink Orangina.

Yes, we took her for granted. We have lived in her and around her; we have loved her. Now she is lost to the future, even as we tenderly hold her, a piece of our life, our own place, our owned memory.