When a House Feels Like Home

By Sally Quinn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 5, 2007

When I was growing up, we never lived anyplace longer than a year and a half. My father was in the Army, and we moved constantly from post to post, from one side of the country to another, from one country to another.

This was not easy for my mother. She was the one who stayed behind to pack, then travel with three children to our new destination, unpack and create a new home. My father always went ahead for his new assignment and was totally involved in it before we even arrived.

We never knew what we were facing, and this was part of the excitement and the trepidation. Would we be living in a palace or a Quonset hut? The challenge for my mother was to make our living quarters a place where we could feel safe and secure, where we felt as if we belonged, where we could be a family in a new and strange environment. She had to make our house a home.

Too many people do not understand the difference. It is important because it can determine whether you are happy and contented.

A house, according to the dictionary, is a "place that provides shelter, living space." That's easy. A home is more complicated. A home is "where one likes to be, a place thought of as the center of one's affections, a restful or congenial place." There is a reason for the cliche "Home is where the heart is."

For me, the home is sacred. I'm not just talking about the space. I'm talking about the feelings of love and security and peace and community that the home should embody. If there is to be any peace in my life, I have to know that I have a home to go to. I have to know that I've created a place where my family feels happy, where my friends feel welcome and where I feel I belong spiritually.

The question is, how do we create that place, those feelings? It's not that hard. I'll tell you what my mother did.

First, you need to understand that because we were a military family, we were assigned quarters. Then there was the furniture. In those days, the Army assigned furniture from the Quartermaster Corps. It was all the same style of ugly sofas and uncomfortable barrel chairs. It came in three colors: drab gold, drab green and drab blue. It made one long for purples, shocking pinks and oranges.

We never had much money. As my mother used to say, "The Army travels on its stomach." Plus, anything you shipped -- if it didn't get lost -- was bound to arrive torn, broken or mangled. So it was not much use hauling valuable things around the world.

Somewhere along the line my mother acquired an enormous bolt of cloth. It was a heavy white cotton-linen with giant pink, peach and red geraniums on it. It sounds a bit garish, but in fact it was the most joyful fabric I had ever seen. To this day my heart leaps when I see geraniums.

The first thing she would do whenever we moved into new quarters was to unroll the bolt of cloth and start draping it around the windows (we never made curtains because they wouldn't fit all sizes of windows). She'd put ready-made slipcovers on the few pieces we had brought with us and then drape other furniture with the bright blooms. She would have cheap white cotton slipcovers made to go on the big pieces of furniture and use geranium throw pillows around the room.

Next, out came the family photographs, the books (mostly my father's collection from West Point), the family silver -- which we always brought -- and a few other small pieces that were personal. We were home!

Actually, even before my mother got out the bolt of geraniums, she and my father would have a party. It was a tradition with us. The day the movers arrived with all of our stuff, my mother would get out her cooking pot and cook up a huge dish called Johnny Mazetti casserole, made with noodles, tomatoes, cheese and hamburger meat. She'd serve salad, garlic bread, brownies and lots of jug wine. They would invite our neighbors on the Army post, and everyone would sit around on boxes and moving crates, using paper plates and plastic cups.

This was, in my parents' minds, a way of saying, "We're here. Welcome to our home." It wasn't about decorating or having beautiful things or showing off what great taste they had. It was about friendship and a sense of community.

How many times have you walked into a fabulous house that looked like a museum or a hotel lobby? Everything is perfect: All of the curtains match, as do the pillows and lamps, and all are the most lavish materials. And yet, it looks as if no humans live there. You can hire the most expensive decorator in the world, but if the finished space is not your taste, it won't be a home. On the other hand, you can gather the least expensive objects, but if they are meaningful to you, they will contribute to a wonderful environment.

Creating a home is not about money. It is about being personal. It's about authenticity. It's about being who you really are.

There's a huge mansion here in Washington, decorated to the nines by the most celebrated designers. It must have cost a fortune. One friend of mine went to a party there recently and jokingly asked, "Where's the gift shop?"

Some of the most hideous houses (note houses, not homes) I've been in were the most grand. Some of the most beautiful were one-room studios.

A lot of people are simply paralyzed by the idea of decorating. It comes from fear of expressing oneself. What if my taste is bad? What will people think of me? So they do nothing. Or they go to Crate and Barrel, Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware and buy a roomful of furniture. That way they know they'll be safe, if not original.

Those stores are great. But you don't want to just go in and buy a room. Most stores these days have decorators you can work with.

Decorators are great, too. As long as they understand who you are and how you want to live. Just think of it this way: If you decorate your house the way you really want it in a way that pleases you and that reflects your personality, then the people who like you will like it as well.

And if they don't? Too bad. It's your home.

Sally Quinn is a co-moderator of On Faith, an online conversation on religion athttp://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith.

Do you have a favorite chair, a garden view, a spot for morning coffee that makes your place feel special to you? We'd love to hear about it. E-mail us at home@washpost.com.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company