When a House Becomes a Home
December 3, 2020 § 6 Comments
It has only been a week since I finished my 2020 Gift Guide and already I need a do over! I started this year’s guide earlier than usual, which meant I was still digging myself out of a hefty “to read” pile, and I’ve since discovered a few gems that positively beg to be included. Like Phoebe Wahl’s The Blue House (Ages 3-8). Honestly, this book is so good I might have chosen it as My Favorite Picture Book of the Year (although no disrespect to the two I did choose, because they’re perfection). For sure, it feels like nothing I’ve read this year. It’s raw and tender and gorgeous and loud. It features a single father who reads aloud during bath time, shreds on the electric guitar, and holds space for his son’s feelings, the bad along with the good. And while the story is centered around a modest little old house, it reinforces what it really means for a house to be a home.
My mom has an expression she employs each time I’m preparing to moving into a new space, from dorm rooms, to my first apartment, to the temporary digs we moved into at the start of this pandemic, after breaking ground on renovating what I hope will be our forever home. Whenever I start to worry—That dorm is a 1960s disaster! This apartment hardly has any windows!—she always says with confidence, “You have to make it cute.” Those seven words have become a kind of mantra for me, because there’s inherent optimism in them. It’s the idea that hanging a few pictures, puffing up a few pillows, and putting down a plush rug can transform the spirit of any place. It’s working with what you have. It’s simple. It’s doable.
And it’s true: when we put effort into brightening up our house, we can relax into it. When we make our four walls a tiny extension of ourselves, we can live a little freer, a little louder, a little more boldly. And then there’s the emotional decorating. Because making a house “cute” comes as much from the life we lead inside it: the love we foster, the heartbreak we overcome, the laughs that surprise us, the memories we make. What we give to a house comes back to us as a home.
“Leo lived with his dad in an old blue house next to a tall fir tree. The paint was peeling, and the roof was mossy. There were leaks and creaks. And when the wind blew, the whole thing shook. But it was theirs.” Right off the bat, a couple things are notable. When was the last time we saw a long-haired boy in a picture book? Can’t remember. How often do encounter an interior of a house that actually looks lived in? As Leo splashes in the tub, his father sits on the closed toilet seat reading to him (be still my heart), surrounded by dirty laundry, a space heater, shampoo and detergent bottles, a burned-down candle, and a cat who wants in on the action.
The next few pages give us more insight into the quirky features of the blue house and the richness of the life inside it. Leo and his dad know all the best spots to build blanket forts, and they have dance parties in the living room when the weather is too cold to go outside. When the heater breaks, they transform misfortune into opportunity, filling the kitchen with the warmth of a freshly-baked pie.
But the neighborhood is changing. New apartment buildings are taking the place of rundown old houses, with no regard for the lives thriving inside them. (If you’re getting a Virginia Lee Burton vibe here, a.k.a. The Little House, me too.) Sure enough, Leo’s dad gets a call from their landlord, informing them that the house has been sold and is slotted to be torn down. They have to move. What Leo thought was “theirs” forever is abruptly, inexplicably gone.
If The Blue House makes ample space for the physical objects in Leo’s everyday life, it makes equal space for his emotions upon facing unprecedented change, uncertainty, and powerlessness. “Leo was angry. How could someone just take their house away?” He locks himself in his room and takes refuge under his blankets. The furnishings and toys and books spread chaotically around him—so much color and activity! such a range of interests! so many hand-fashioned details!—are a vivid testament to the full life he has been leading, a life he worries is disappearing.
What’s perhaps most refreshing isn’t simply that Leo’s temper is allowed to alight, but that his father supports his outburst; in fact, he joins him in expressing anger, even recruits music and art to help. When Leo eventually comes downstairs, “they danced and stomped and raged together. They shredded on guitar, and Leo did a special scream solo. It made both of them a little less mad.”
Over the next few days, as boxes fill up, the floors and walls become bare, the blue house now “echoey and drafty like a hollow shell.” Before they leave for good, they paint a mural on the wall of flowers and animals, and “it made both of them a little less sad.”
With ten pages left in the book, the two move into their new house (keen observers will notice from the book’s endpapers that the new house is actually just down the street from the old) and begin the work of claiming this new space. And it is work. At first, Leo resents how empty and foreign the new house feels. “I hate it,” he tells his dad. His dad doesn’t attempt to talk him out of it: “That’s okay,” he replies.
With the old blue house soon a hole in the ground, Leo gets an idea. What if they paid homage to their former home by painting the blue house as they remember it on the wall of their new house? They start by mixing “the perfect shade of blue. And it made them both feel a little more at home.”
“Little by little,” the new house begins to feel familiar. Leo and his dad take things out of boxes. They bake a pie. One night, they finally unpack the stereo and “danced and stomped and sang until it was time for bed.” It’s then that Leo realizes he had been right. The blue house would always be his, and the new house would be, too.
When a house ceases to be just a house, when it shifts to become a home, it takes up residence in our heart. It becomes irrefutably ours, and no one can take that away.
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