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Where my head is

To my bread pals,

I’ve been thinking a lot about home lately, but also, most of my life. I wrestled with the confines of home as a teenager in the early 80s: was it feminist to like baking? To love home? Domesticity seemed at odds with feminism, so I duked it out in my life. In pursuit of writerly chaos, I ran away from the idea of coziness, steady quarters and routine, and ran toward these presumed enemies in the confusion of early motherhood.

My latest considerations of home have little inner conflict. They began last December, as my father was dying. We got him back from a brief stay in the hospital and put his hospice bed in the family room that he built. As he lay still in his last days, just breathing, we kept close. Up on a shelf that was a remnant of the old back porch, some of his childhood toys kept vigil: a castle he played with in the late 1930s, early 1940s, a rusty tractor repaired with a wooden wheel. My father’s feet were near the wood stove he installed to heat the room.

Now the house is for sale. The realtors have made an incredible 3D tour. Watching it, I can visit all the stories of my life. I can sit on the stairs every single Christmas morning, and unpack my red calico stocking my grandma made to match my bathrobe — my sisters’ sets were different colored calicos. I can unwrap the gag gifts my dad stuffed into our stockings: potato guns, little plastic people with parachutes that we launched from the third floor through the stairwell down to the hallway. I can suck on a candy cane before breakfast.

Walking virtually through the kitchen I can pretend I’ll see my dad sitting in his wheelchair reading the paper at breakfast. “Hi dad,” I say into the impossibility. Of course, he isn’t there and soon my mom won’t be either. She is feeling very unsettled as she uproots herself from her home of 48 years. I am feeling unsettled too, and packing my house with treasures. The tractor sits on the mantle over my desk. The castle is on top of our piano.

Trying to understand all of my feelings and ideas about home, I have turned to books. I’ve been reading about architecture and trying to place the details of the 1905, 2 ½ story house that was once a Methodist parsonage. I’ve dug into history about houses and home, trying to separate mythologies from realities and get a grip on what life might’ve been like if I were a (white) woman in any of many other eras in America, and living in this or another house. Here are a few books that I’ve found useful:

Perfection Salad by Laura Shapiro

The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harness the Power of Home and Change the Way We Live by Danielle Dreilinger

The Making of Home: the 500 Year Story of How Our Houses Became Our Homes by Judith Flanders

The Domestic Revolution: How the Introduction of Coal into Victorian Homes Changed Everything by Ruth Goodman

Reading them helps me sort out the preconceptions I’ve absorbed. Starting in my teenage years, I dismissed home economics as strictly antifeminist, and I highly recommend Laura Shapiro’s book as an antidote to this simplification. (I wrote about it in an earlier letter this year). Danielle Dreilinger reveals lots more about home economics, including how scientific analysis of homemaking carved an educational and career path for women; how white women kept Black women out of the professionalizing field; and how consumerism co-opted the feminist roots of the movement. There’s a lot more to the book than this skeletal summary — it is really worth a read.

I’m also looking at histories of technology and houses, tracing the notions & objects of hearth and home through Europe and America. I read Bill Bryson’s At Home, and Home: A Short History of an Idea by Witold Rybczynski, but neither of them dug into the subject the way that Ruth Goodman and Judith Flanders’ books do. In The Making of Home, Flanders satisfyingly tackles the lore of home, concluding a chapter called “Building Myths” with this paragraph:

“For families, and homes, have always been in flux, evolving to meet the needs and circumstances of each. The only permanency has been our belief that there is one unchanging reality, perhaps the strongest and most comforting myth of all.”

Reality does seem static, doesn’t it? Time is so slippery and fluid that as we move through it, we can hardly notice or track it. Houses seem like they hold time, because they capture memories. That’s what is heartbreaking about losing the place where I grew up and where I’ve visited and been with family for so long. The house seems like it can hold the love that I’ve had (and the fights and the boredom and insomnia too), but that’s too big a job for an address, no matter how carefully my mother and father tended the place.

In the midst of all these feelings, I am fine. I am baking and reading and canning, and taking lots of walks. I am keenly aware that so many people don’t have the luxury of a fixed location to lose. If you enjoy my newsletter, please consider making a donation to support people who are unsettled by crises near and far — Afghanistan, Beirut, Louisiana, or in your city or town.

Until next week, Amy