Inside Stories

During news coverage of storm Sandy’s devastation in New York’s Belle Harbor neighborhood, a TV reporter’s description jumped out at me: “Houses turned inside out.”

That they were. Bedraggled bedroom headboards, kitchen tables, and sectional sofas littered sodden streets. Private lives lay naked, much the way house demolitions leave a cross section of painted, wallpapered rooms exposed like a doll’s house.

Usually, we’re left to wonder what’s beyond front doors that face the street, securely concealing the contents within. There are some clues, of course, to a household’s inner life:  Political-campaign signs and lawn furniture indicate the owners’ philosophy and preference for traditional or contemporary style. I often walk past a yellow home with a wooden bench positioned where the lawn meets the road. “Have a seat, rest your feet,” a plaque on the bench reads. How could those homeowners not be kindhearted?

Mostly, outward clues are minimal. Houses are treasure boxes where, as any child knows, X marks the spot of our personal trove.

Our attachment to that trove is what makes it so hard to pick up and move. We’re not just talking furnishings, which may not be as valuable as we think, if we believe the observation of a local art dealer, who once said: “Drive up and down streets of nice houses and you just know there’s no [good] art on the walls.”

It’s often said we shape our rooms and our rooms shape us. But I’m more in the camp of Elsie de Wolfe, the famed “First Lady of Interior Decoration,” who said of living-room décor, “It will express your life, if you use it, so be careful of the life you live in it!”

At my house, personal treasures shaped by living include the inside of the door to the basement, which is pencil-marked with the heights of family, friends, and even our little terrier, with a line indicating the tips of her ears for maximum height.

Painting that door would obliterate her pencil line, along with Grandpa’s and growing neighbor children. Does it come with us when we move?

Where I “stay” (as opposed to live) became popular street jargon a few years back. It suggests impermanence, of course. And there may be some merit in that, in being able to turn on a dime. Think of college students and young professionals out late and on the move.

Still, there are the words I’ll always remember spoken by a boy in foster care when he was finally adopted: “I feel like I’ve been standing for a long time and I finally got to sit down.”

Home, for those who know what it’s like to be without, is the treasure where XO marks the spot.

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