midpoint (2006-19)

A clean, well-lighted place

Where the Heart Is

by Stephanie Piper


After love, it must be the most emotionally charged word in the English language. And like love, it has many definitions.

My mother, a stickler for correct usage, rejected the notion that “house” and “home” were interchangeable. Real estate ads for “Attractive Modern Homes” grated on her nerves. Sloppy and inaccurate, she would snap decisively. You buy a house. You make a home.

Her own childhood home echoed with the death of her father when she was 4, a searing loss from which a dark river of losses flowed. Her mother, a widow with five children to raise, was distracted and distant; her older siblings went quickly to work and about their lives. My mother, the youngest, was left behind to watch her world unravel. The house my grandfather bought new in the mid-1900s grew shabby and threadbare; the once prosperous neighborhood slipped into weedy disrepair. My mother left for college at 18 and never went back, not in person, rarely in memory. “Where did you live when you were a little girl?” I would ask her. “Far away from here,” she would reply. End of story.

In the homes she made for us, there was a kind of defiant beauty and elegance. When money was tight, she scrimped and saved to buy imported fabric and sewed the curtains and slipcovers herself. We sat down to dinner every night at a table set with linen napkins and candles, even when the entrée was tuna casserole. When my father’s career took off, my mother hired a decorator to design polished, impeccable rooms filled with antiques and gilt-framed engravings.

The cold upbringing never left her. Displays of affection were rare and awkward; talk about feelings was discouraged. And yet, strangely, her houses felt like homes. Books filled floor-to-ceiling shelves in nearly every room. The front hall chest always held a big, exuberant bouquet. My mother had her demons, but she knew how to create comfort. When I arrived home from boarding school or college for a weekend, it was to find the chocolate gingerbread cake I loved in the pantry and a bowl of my favorite McIntosh apples on the kitchen counter. 

I think a lot about homes in my current line of work, raising money for the poor and homeless. Sometimes, I am invited to the newly acquired residences of people who have been living in shelters or on the street. In the barest efficiency apartment or run-down duplex, I am always struck by the impulse toward beauty. China angel statues cluster on top of a TV set; a rickety coffee table holds a collection of yard-sale pottery. Day-glo nature scenes or the face of Jesus painted on velvet cover the walls. Somehow, those creative efforts remind me of my mother. Her taste did not run to orange dolphins and kissing cherubs, but she would recognize instantly that those things have value. They are tokens against loss, emblems of a safe harbor.

I’ve made homes in five states, in student housing and garage apartments, 19th century farmhouses, brick Colonials. I’ve packed and unpacked the Christmas ornaments and the kindergarten clay imprints of my children’s hands, the wedding silver, the good china more times than I can remember, looked out new windows at new, unfamiliar landscapes and wondered how this place would ever feel like our place. Now in my eighth dwelling in 38 years, I think I understand. 

“I’m not homeless,” a woman living at the mission once told me. “I’m houseless. The home part is something invisible, something inside me. When I get a place of my own, I’ll bring it along.”

My mother furnished our houses with English chintz sofas and vintage armoires and a powerful longing to fill up the empty spaces in her past. Unpredictable, wounded and wary of sentiment, she set her heart on home.