A few years ago, I had the opportunity to pass through a little town called Coppet on the northern shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland where I lived for a year as a child, when my father was sent by his employer in Canada to attend a business school in Geneva. I hadn't been back in almost 40 years.
At the time, my memories of that period were sparse. I was 6. I had few friends. I was painfully skinny. I wore hateful cat-eye glasses. My younger brother was a baby. And my mother was pregnant with her last of five children. Those were some of the simple facts I could remember.
But then I walked up the small road to look at the house where we had lived, the address of which my mother had given me. Suddenly, a thousand memories flooded back, in vivid technicolor, with intricate detail, characters I had forgotten – that snooty girl who pretended to like me, coming to my birthday party but not inviting me to hers! – snatches of dialogue even. Somehow, that little house had been silently holding all the information for decades, even while other occupants had come and gone. I knocked on the door. No one was home. So I walked around the property, peered in the windows, and lost myself in time. Later, I went to a nearby café where I scribbled down all the memories, all the scenes, quickly, anxious to pin them to a page before they seeped back into the stuccoed walls.
Houses are such complex repositories. Everything we have lived and felt is there in the frame of a window that looks out to the trees, in the folds of the curtains, the cushions of a sofa, in the bathrooms we never liked and in the kitchens we adored, in the slope of a deck and in the sound and feel of the door that slapped shut when we let it close behind us. Purposeful and pragmatic and calming with their sensible roofs, their square proportions, their sturdy heft, the serious, watchful eyes of their windows, they have heard and seen everything. They have known us and comforted us. In Bonnie Burnard's Giller-prize-winning novel, The Good House, the homes and cottages have an omniscient wisdom, a generosity of spirit that tolerates the human dramas that take place within their embrace. They are often more noble, and have more forbearance, than their inhabitants.
I have been thinking recently about the significance of home, not only because spring often feels like a call for a new one, but because this summer will mark 10 years that I have lived in my current house. Which is a record. I have never lived that long at one address. We moved around a lot when I was child – across Canada and in Europe – because of my father's work. Even as an adult, I was always moving, sometimes out of necessity (more children, a dog); other times out of a profit motive (who doesn't in Toronto?); and once out of unwise fantasy fulfilment.
Houses are often seen as a measurement of progress. A Starter Home is one that, by definition, you expect to graduate from. And each one holds time-specific memories like a loyal friend. All the houses I have lived in marked a certain stage in my life. That house in Coppet was The Adventure House. I remember making fondue from scratch in the tiny kitchen with a Swiss girl who helped my mother. My elder sister enlisted me to help her make perfume from the plentiful flowers in the garden. (I had to stir the soupy mixture for hours in the bedroom we shared; it didn't work.) There is The Highschool House in Montreal which holds some memories best not repeated. Let's just say that the basement playroom saw a lot. The Magazine-Perfect House is where the thirty-something marital tableau found its expression in chintz curtains, hand-stencilled-furniture and fluffed pillows. The Juggling Home, when my three boys were young, had rooms bursting with boisterous Lego-scattered life, and on the second floor, a small office where I could write into the night, when everyone else was asleep. It was a home of thresholds, where I could swap identities – mom to writer and back again – by changing rooms.
There are parts of me in the walls of at least a dozen houses. And I've always moved on, from one to the next, with a sense of excitement, anticipating a new chapter that's about to unfold.
That's another thing I know about houses. The hope and excitement we feel upon wanting to live in a new one is often the desire to play out a fresh, different narrative. In fact, it's an impulse encouraged by the design-rich culture in which we live. "What works of design and architecture talk to us about is the kind of life that would most appropriately unfold within and around them. They tell us of certain moods that they seek to encourage and sustain in their inhabitants," writes Alain de Botton in The Architecture of Happiness. He suggests that it is actually architecture's task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be – or better yet – become. But "geographic cures," as therapists like to call the urge to move to a new place, don't often work. Houses make promises of happiness they can't always keep. And so we move on.
Until we don't want to. But is that because we have lost the energy for adventure? That we have no more rooms that need filling? If you don't want to imagine yourself somewhere else, is that because you have given up on reinvention, on possibilities? "I don't want to die in the house I'm currently in," a female friend told me recently. We had been talking about where we had lived and how those houses helped define who we were then, what we hoped for, what we achieved and what we couldn't. She felt she had one more new life, one more house, in her.
But then I thought about the 10 years I have lived in my house. The memories, all of them, have been good for the most part. This really has been a happy house, that imagined place of serenity and harmony come to life. I remember stepping into it, when I moved in, and wondering, with some trepidation, what would happen here. I was freshly divorced. There was no script. And yet something lovely wrote itself into the walls through the years, a tale of determination, friendships, laughter, of children becoming adults, leaving, of new love, peace. And I realized suddenly that maybe I haven't wanted to move because I don't want to leave those memories behind, to be recalled only when I happen to pass by it on the street.
In her memoir, Slow Love, How I Lost My Job, Put on my Pajamas & Found Happiness, Dominique Browning, the former editor of House & Garden magazine, writes about the anguish she felt upon realizing that she had to sell her beloved house that had "taken on a lifelike quality with its humming and grinding and grumbling noises, the walls like scrolls of shared history, proudly displaying each one of our achievements." She sheepishly admits that sometimes, when leaning against a doorway in her house, she kisses its skin.
I'm not sure I ever felt that way until now. Maybe, finally, I'm truly home.