In all the real estate porn that flips up on our search engines, in all the designer pads pedalled as ‘lifestyles’, in all the breathless renovation shows on TV, one thing is forgotten. That a house, or apartment, or room is more than a home where we weep, laugh, love, scream and survive. It’s an exoskeleton we can shed, but where inside we become, come undone and grow again. And when we leave that shell, we leave a part of ourselves behind.
We have just moved out of the home where my kids have grown from toddlers to small people. From the first day when they rolled naked on the grass (and the first night where they woke up screaming with an allergic rash) to the day we left, it bore witness to our being. It was where my daughter’s full cheeks turned to cheekbones and her chubby feet became planks bigger than my own. It was where my son transformed from a troubled tantrum-throwing toddler to a cool dude with confidence and class. There was so much personal transformation within the walls and in the garden we grew, that it felt painful to shut the door on that part of our lives.
We are homeless for a few weeks, so I am writing this in the family home where I grew up. This is where I played witches in the cellar, screamed ‘Marco Polo’ in the pool, wondered whether I’d ever fall in love, skipped down the driveway after doing so and then cried with a crushed heart. This is the house where I tried to work out what to do with my life and where I still return to ask the same question. This is where I first felt lost and fell apart, and in this home I put myself back together. This will always be the place where much of my life has been lived.
When I went overseas aged 21 I returned to find my bedroom had become a bathroom. But when I go to that bathroom now it still feels like my room. I can still see its brown carpet and orange and pink flowered wallpaper. When I stand in the shower I can see the ghost of my young self slumped at my desk or doing handstands against my bed. When I look out the window I remember the night a boy climbed in. I am preserved in its walls.
There’s a special sacredness to the garden. There is the tree where from my brother would make noises to spook my sleepover parties. There is the patch of lawn where three of us got married and where the family dog was put down last year. We don’t have the right to call it a ‘sacred site’, but it’s hallowed ground all the same. As is the room where my sister slept with pink walls and shag pile carpet which is now a soft green place where I have cuddled my nieces and rocked my babies to sleep. When my parents move from this house it will hurt. A lot.
I am aware our new house has the same feeling for those who leave it, more so for their kids. It seems our homes are special to us as children and then as the places where we grow our own children. They are memory stores and retreats for older Australians who understandably find them hard to leave. Perhaps in our twenties flats or houses are less important - just places to sleep and entertain. But I’m not sure. For I have other sacred places in my life.
Most especially, an old flat I lived in in Sydney’s Tamarama. The rent was low and the building had concrete cancer; its carpet was skanky yellow and salt encrusted damp, its windows rattled in the wind, its roof caved in on my bed one day. But how I loved that flat. I spent many hours with my feet on the windowsill staring out to the sea. I swam before work and at night on full moon waves, I stumbled home to it at dawn and stayed up all night laughing with my flat mate. I recently met a woman who rented the flat years before me and she talked about it in the same way.
I often drive past my favourite pad of my early twenties - the last flat on the headland Bondi Beach. To afford the rent I slept in a room midway sized between a cupboard and a sunroom and my flatmate would wake me every morning as he went to check the surf. It was a hideous building but we had beautiful parties on the balcony above the waves. One night we all swam off the rocks – there was phosphorescence in the water and then blood on the floor as we cut ourselves scrambling out of the sea.
I also have fond memories of an inner city terrace so mouldy that my poster of Marilyn Monroe grew a beard and a house in Canberra with wisteria on the balcony and central heating under the floors. I revered our sanctuary in India – we called it ‘the biosphere’ as it would seal up the cultural chasm and the press of a billion people every night.
You don’t need to be a mortgage slave to feel home. And you don’t need to renovate to transform a house into being one. New houses can be interesting but they await presence. I never warm to houses styled for sale – they feel as unlived in and unloved.
There’s no doubt Australians are obsessed with home ownership. Real estate is a national creed and a national greed and renovating is a fetish. I worry that our obsession with home gives us a drawbridge mentality and keeps our minds off the really important stuff. I don’t like the fact it’s given us an affordability crisis with some in debt to their eyeballs and others never able to buy. I’d rather go to the dentist than Bunnings and too much domesticity bores me.
But I wanted to write about home. About the bricks of housing encasing the building blocks of being. And I wondered what you think makes a home, and at what stage in life has it been most special to you?