Think about a place of your childhood. What do you first see? Whether it’s the family kitchen, the grandparents’ woodshed, the baseball field, or the big tree in the backyard, our earliest memories are attached to a place. Places stick in our minds because they embody something more than the physical space they occupy. The places of our lives, especially those of our childhood, are saturated with emotional and psychological associations.
According to builder and home designer Chris Travis,* the emotional and psychological attachments we associate with those places, even though we aren’t consciously aware of them, affect our responses to our present-day surroundings. Understanding the root of these attachments helps him design homes that take these buried associations into account and satisfy his clients’ preferences.
For example one couple was deadlocked about having a basement; the husband wanted it, the wife inexplicably against it. Through one of Travis’s Truehome exercises, they discovered she was claustrophobic and had negative childhood associations with closed spaces like deep closets and basements. This discovery helped the designer come up with something that satisfied the husband’s space needs and the wife’s aversion.*
Memoirists know that examining the past helps to understand the present and possibly affect the future. So of course, being the inward-looking person I am, I started thinking about the homes of my past and how they may have influenced the many other homes of my life.
My husband and I have moved about eight times over the years of our marriage. Although we haven’t always had a choice about our dwellings—the two-room adobe house with outside sink and scorpions climbing down the walls in Guatemala, the four-room downstairs parsonage apartment with the slanting floor and upstairs tenant in Vermont—I realized every house, from the first cape on Long Island with the ugly green asphalt siding to our present white, light, bright one—had great yards.
The yard is the first thing I look at when considering a house. When I thought about the places of my childhood, I realized my memories were mostly about being outdoors. Despite my mother’s efforts, the house I grew up in usually looked like someone had opened the door and let a hurricane pass through. But we didn’t care because we were allowed to roam the meadows, rivers and lakes from dawn to dusk. (What was my mother thinking!) And that penchant for living outside while snug inside is always with me--as is the need for order--(Bob’s gotten used to it too.)
I’ve used the following example a gazillion times—and yes, I remember that I have in case you think I'm getting forgetful—but it is so good it deserves to be repeated. C.S. Lewis writes about the place of influence in his childhood. His father moved the family to a large house. Lewis’s brother went away to school, leaving Lewis alone much of the time. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes the impact this house had on him:
The New House is almost a major character in my story. I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books.
1. Model Lewis’s format and write about a place that had an impact on you as a child.
2. Start a sentence with It was a place where . . .
3. What was home like for you? How has it influenced your idea of home now? What emotional or psychological impact does it have on your present preferences?
These are two fascinating resources about what the objects and places of our lives say about who we are:
*Snoop--What Your Stuff Says About You, by Sam Gosling, Ph.D.