Around this time last year, I was in Montreal, writing about chef Jérôme Ferrer of the restaurant Europea when he told me about a big Valentine's event he had organized in the historic downtown Birks store. Tables for two, covered in white linen, would be scattered about the ground floor of the imposing neo-classic building. A gourmet menu would be served. Musicians would roam about. Couples would be all dressed up amidst the grandeur, in between the glass cases of jewels. And there would be a banquet of diamond rings and other jewellery set out, tempting the courage of every man and the hope of every woman.
Sound romantic? I thought so too – at first. And then I thought, naw, it's all too arch. On such a stage, what can really be said? With everyone watching in a public setting, one has a tendency to act out the expected script, flirting and smiling and saying all the right things. How many of us have purposely gone out to dinner with someone, not because of what you want to say but because of what you want to avoid discussing? Love in a restaurant setting can be as insipid as a Hallmark card. It's true it can also be proof that a couple enthralled with one another creates their own world, oblivious to their surroundings. But often, when you're on show in your perfect dress with your hair just right, you can end up fulfilling the cultural idea of what love should sound and feel like. It's about others' view of you, not your own reality.
I'd rather spend the night that's marketed as the most romantic of the year at home with my guy, making a nice little dinner together.
That there can be pleasure in the quiet comfort of the domestic comes as a surprise perhaps because it isn't always so. We often spend our lives in a conflicted relationship with the place we call home. As Samuel Johnson wrote: "To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition." It is the place that holds the greatest power over our emotions. Home sweet home is just as easily home toxic home.
I can call up scenes from my youth that took place in certain houses that fill me with longing, a sense of security and happiness. My emotional life is rooted in the physical details – the memory of a floral wallpaper in my bedroom when I was 11, the texture of the white shag rug (it was the late sixties), the view from the dormer window over the rooftops of Montreal.
Others, of course, aren't as lucky. "I would come home from school in the afternoon, put my key in the lock and pray that she was out. I dreaded the dead air in the apartment, which was heavy with unhappiness," writes Ruth Reichl, in her 2010 memoir, Not Becoming My Mother.
And yet, despite the happiness or not of the family home, by the time the teenage years come along, most of us ache to escape it. It's all part of the archetypal journey of becoming yourself, I know, but it seems so deeply ironic to me – that the place that formed you is the one you reject, at least for certain periods. Which underscores the powerful influence it has.
I have seen this rejection in myself as well as in my own boys, now young men. And you just hope, as a parent, that once they leave, they will want to return – not to live (I am all for encouraging boomerang children to fling themselves back out the door) but to visit, to have home be a touchstone, a still point in the kaleidoscope of their lives, reminding them of where they started and how far they've come.
Perhaps, though, the home that involves the greatest conflicts is the one we create for ourselves as adults. It is our psychological mirror – where we reconcile and plan experiences, the place in which we assemble our pieces, bits from the past we haven't rejected but need as reminders, things we think we are in the present or might become in the future. All of it is stuff; mental furniture; an architecture of intended happiness.
But it doesn't always fulfill the dream we have for it, of course, especially as women. We marry, and the home becomes the expression of domestic bliss, a concrete sign of commitment. But with the arrival of children and increased domestic responsibilities, the home can feel like a prison, creating resentments and restricting who we are at the same time as it partly defines us. That the term "stay-at-home Mom" was coined at the time when women were fiercely trying to "have it all" points to our confusion. It immediately suggests a circumscription of experiences, even though many full-time mothers would argue that life at home expands their hearts in ways they could not have imagined. And for any couple in a difficult marriage, the home is the last place you want to be.
Even in the happiest of unions, the home retains a power to comfort and irritate, bringing out our love-hate relationship with our inner housewife. I don't think I'm alone when I admit that a spot on a rug can drive me nuts. I can find myself hating a wall colour with the vehemence of a school girl who has taken a sudden dislike to last week's BBF. Then again, I can feel an inordinate amount of serenity and pride in gazing upon a freshly polished countertop.
The power that home has over our state of mind, I suppose, is because it is a stage too, just like that Birks store for last year's Valentine's event, but more immediate, more honest. It's where the intimacies of life play out in their own time.
Our favourite room in the house is painted a deep burgundy red. It is one of the first changes we made when we moved in together. It sets off paintings, little treasures, fresh flowers if we have them, and photographs, too: happy smiling faces of our families, my parents, his parents, some ancestors, and our children in various combinations, his with mine, his with me, mine with him. And we can sit there, eating our special dinner, drinking wine, in our own play, sometimes with dialogue, and sometimes without, not following any script, free of a watching, expectant audience.