Friday, December 2, 2022 Dec 2, 2022
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Where The Heart Is
By Robert A. Wilson |

IN A CERTAIN CORNER of our minds, the front hall light of home is always on. Home. Whether we have moved around a lot or stayed put for generations, its pull on our imaginations never relents. Once, it may have been a place we only wanted to escape. But it is also the place where, as Robert Frost said, they always have to take us in. No matter what.

It’s the “no matter what” that makes it home. Home is where the familiar reigned and where our patterns for living began. It is where we last believed in Santa Claus and where we first made our acquaintance with death. Home is where we were taken care of before we learned to take care of ourselves; it was maybe the first place-and possibly the last-where we encountered love which demanded no quid pro quo.

Sometimes what we learn to love at home will influence the affections of an entire lifetime. Paul Mellon is one of this country’s great benefactors and, as was pointed out in a recent Washington Post profile on the occasion of Mellon’s retirement as chairman of the National Gallery of Art: “Mellon’s benefactions grow from his affections.” By the time he was 5, Paul Mellon’s parents were divorced; from that age until he was sent away to school, he was to spend half a year each with his young English mother and his father, Andrew Mellon. Paul Mellon wrote about his home in Pittsburgh where he lived with his father: “. . . (it) was very dark and the halls were very dark and the walls were very dark, and outside, Pittsburgh itself was very dark.” The half-year spent with his mother in England was something else entirely: “I remember huge dark trees in rolling parks, herds of small friendly deer, flotillas of white swans. .soldiers in scarlet and bright metal drums and bugles, troops of gray horses, laughing ladies in white.. and always behind them and behind everything the grass was green, green, green.”

When you read of Paul Mellon today, at 77, you understand that the only home and life that mattered to the young boy were English; those early half-years were later to be translated into some of the greatest bequests of art our country has ever seen, including the museum he gave in 1977 to his alma mater, Yale, complete with a superlative collection of British art.

Home can furnish all the inspiration an artist will ever need. Faulkner said, “I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and I would never live long enough to exhaust it.” We are followed from home by the things we want never to forget and those we want never to remember. It’s where some children in bed at night hear and feel the word “divorce” come whirling, saw-edged down the hall, into their rooms, leaving them ambushed and still. Home is where battle lines get formed-and also where, on the distant shore of growing up, the memories of the battles fade as intentions are finally understood. It is at home, too, where the capacity to understand gets stretched to wholly unexpected limits.

Home is the way the bed was arranged, pushed into a corner, a wall at the headboard and one side; a half-safe refuge. Sometimes home was where all that was wanted were a few unforced signs of affection, when all that was obtained were expectations of achievements.

Physically, real homes have nothing to do with closet space or bathrooms that resemble natatoriums, nor do they have much to do with faucets designed to resemble golden swans, books selected for the color of their spines, doorbells that play old favorites when rung, or windows designed to never open. The best homes, like good sentences, leave room to think; they provide generous tip-offs to the values of the people within. There are always mistakes in real homes and a certain amount of disarray and, in those two respects, they resemble life itself. When you find yourself in a home with everything in its carefully considered place, with no emotional or physical seams showing and certainly no rings on the table, you are probably in for a long evening-and don’t forget to check your spontaneity at the door.

Real homes also do not necessarily have very much to do with architects-with wonderful exceptions. If you have been to eastern Long Island and seen what amounts to a graveyard of modern architectural style, whose headstones consist of an endless grove of contemporary homes set among the dunes of Bridgehampton, your eyes and emotions start to crave a simple gray-shingled cottage with wild roses framing the front door. Those homes of Bridgehampton make statements in the same way billboards in the country do. A real home makes a statement too, but in the manner of a personal, handwritten note. The problem with those homes in Bridgehampton is that they pay self-conscious homage to the architect; the owners will never take possession. They will always live in the architect’s house and nothing their imagination can summon will get the architect to leave.

We have heard Tom Wolfe’s admonition that you can’t go home again. The message is, I guess, that it doesn’t exist: Home changes and so does the person returning. In one sense there is no necessity to return, because home is embedded in our memories by anchors that always hold, impervious to time. It’s the home in which we were brought up-not the home we go forth to form and in which we do the bringing up-that has the unshakable influence. For an obvious reason: Childhood homes bear powerful witness to our growing up and all of the attendant, unavoidable turmoil. Those swirling remembrances: gestures of forgiveness, missed connections, the sounds of doors shutting, the layout itself, murmurs, a sense of chances taken and chances missed, the postures of people, all the rituals are never as strong as they are in what we first called home.

Most of all, if we were lucky, home for awhile provided a breakwater against the world we were trying to grow up and enter. At times, home would let us live with the illusion that we would never have to leave; it provided the chance to try to fill in what we were missing in ourselves. And when we finally left, we knew an untaken space would remain.

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