He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
I sometimes think that my daughter’s preschool classroom was the place where I learned everything I know about making a home.
I recognize that this isn’t strictly true. I’m sure I learned a great deal from my parents. My childhood home was noisy and a little ragged around the edges, but most nights we sat down to my mother’s delicious food and a perfumed vase of my father’s backyard roses.
And yet, today, I remember that classroom from ten years ago, with its tiny wooden tables and its tiny wooden chairs, and I feel sure of its importance. I feel sure that everything changed for me the day I first held my daughter’s little hand and stepped across the threshold of that space.
My parents created the warmth and beauty of my childhood home on a very limited budget. There was the ingenious playhouse my father sketched on graph paper and realized in inexpensive lumber. There was the dollhouse of my dreams created with plywood and leftover house paint. But by the time I had a home and a child of my own, I had left those real-wood, make-do, homemade days far behind.
I don’t remember ever making a conscious choice to live differently, but not long after my husband and I became parents, it was clear that we had two worlds jostling for position within one small, city apartment. Our daughter’s world was plastic and flimsy and battery-operated. Our world was the warm wood of an old pedestal table we found as newlyweds. Ours was the wooden cutting board and salad bowl I carefully rubbed with a beeswax paste.
Then, the day I walked into that classroom. Here was a child’s world, but there was not a single plastic toy, nor a single plastic dish. There was a play kitchen made of yellow pine. There were wooden beads for stringing and wooden cubbies for little coats and little bags. It was a classroom, but it felt like a home.
I’m not sure why that classroom has suddenly returned to my mind after so many years. Perhaps it is because we recently cleared our own tiny wooden table and tiny wooden chairs from the sunporch. For the first time in a decade, none of the shared rooms in my house look anything like that classroom. I no longer string up rows of finger painted masterpieces. These days, I tend to trip over backpacks and science fair display boards rather than teddy bears and dress-up clothes.
We banished the little table and chairs in order to transform our small sunporch from toy room to reading nook. For years, I’d never spent more time in that space than it took to throw the toys back into bins. But once we moved the toys out and a small love seat in, I began to sit there in the afternoons with a book. While I read, the low winter sun warmed my shoulders, and I realized that the great gift of this corner space was its light. Within a week, I’d filled the room with houseplants.
The making of a home is never a finished project. In this way, it is more like cultivating a garden than it is like building a house. Always, there will come the day when the last nail is hammered into a new roof, but to imagine that such a day might come for homemaking is like imagining that the sun might one day finish its work and fail to rise.
Dirty dishes are as regular as the sun, as persistent as weeds. I love gardening, but I struggle to find joy in the endless tasks of housework. Recently, my perspective has been reshaped by Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life, Margaret Kim Peterson’s witty and spiritually rich meditation on the sacred contours of homemaking.
In a reflection on Psalm 104, Peterson claims that even the God of Judeo-Christian Scripture is a homemaker: “The psalmist’s portrayal is of God as a great housekeeper, pitching a tent, clothing himself with light and the earth with water as with garments, ordering boundaries, making homes for creatures, giving them food, sustaining all life, creating and re-creating through the Spirit” (13).
Each year, around the time we turn our clocks forward, I reread the journal I keep for my garden. I reflect on the past, and I dream new dreams for the future. This year, I determined to grow more flowers but fewer vegetables. And I decided I would finally make room for a few scented viburnums.
If the late-winter sun feels especially warm, I venture outside to prune the fruit trees. Every March I hope to find my pruners rust-free and sharp-edged, but inevitably I am disappointed. Still, a few minutes spent with a steel brush and a metal file in some sunny spot, and I will have the clean, sharp edge I need. An edge that will worry me until I’ve replaced the pruners on the highest shelf in our potting shed.
The long table in my daughter’s classroom was laid, every day, by the children. It was laid with glasses made of real glass and bowls of real wood. The utensils were stainless steel, and the napkins were cloth. At the center of the table there was always a pitcher of water. There was also a cutting board and a knife.
I didn’t know about the knife until my daughter asked at home one day if she could slice her own banana. “I do it at school!” she said. You do??
I found a plate and a butter knife, and I watched as my small child gripped that knife with two hands and a look of unfamiliar seriousness. The way her tiny shoulders hunched over the banana, the concentration in her eyes. It was only a soft piece of fruit. Only a dull kitchen knife. It was my two-year-old daughter doing something hard and doing it well.
Home isn’t only about beauty and warmth. Comfort and care. Home is also the place where we learn and grow. Home is a little bit dangerous.
I never did become completely comfortable with the knives. I still monitor my eight-year-old son’s apple slicing. But this winter we upped the danger factor in our home considerably. I have two small, brown scars on my forearm to prove it. My son has a blister on one finger. We are blistered and scarred because we installed a wood-burning stove in our kitchen.
My husband and I had debated the merits of a wood stove since our first winter in the house, two years ago. The kitchen in our old farmhouse doesn’t have the radiators that have heated the rest of our home for well over a century. Once, it would have been heated (winter and summer) by a cookstove. The previous owners rectified this situation with radiant floor heating. We loved the warm and toasty floor tiles, but we hated the electric bills.
Won’t it be dangerous? friends and family asked. “Yes,” we said. “But worth it.” Thankfully, it has proved most dangerous to the big people who tend the fire. The youngest of my four children is only two, but she quickly learned to give the fire a wide berth. Yet not too wide.
Truthfully, we are all drawn toward the wood stove with a strength and persistence that has surprised me. Ours is a rambling old house, but on these frigid late-winter days, you will find all six of us in the kitchen. The television in the family room has been largely forgotten. The table is piled with picture books and crayons and pieces of at least three different board games.
Fire is risky, but now I can’t imagine our home without it. It gathers us. It warms us. It holds us close.
Inevitably, spring will come, and the fire in the wood stove will die down. My children will scatter. To their bedrooms. To the far corners of our yard. With my kitchen empty again, I will throw open the windows. I will arrange daffodils in jars. I will replace the flannel sheets on our beds. And I will feel the annual urge to clean and refresh our spaces.
No doubt spring will also bring a mailbox stuffed with home catalogs. They will tempt me with their shiny goods in pretty, pastel colors. For years now, I’ve mostly resisted the shiny and new with visits to thrift stores and junk shops. I seek reasonably priced, secondhand treasures as well as the fun and distraction of guilt-free shopping.
But it is still shopping. Lately, I want a kind of homemaking that has absolutely nothing to do with shopping. Even the virtuous secondhand or free-trade sort of shopping. Living in a land of plenty is a privilege and a great responsibility. But it can also be a burden, offering only a mirage of freedom. There is little more circumscribed than a life defined only by consumer choices.
Sometimes the alternative looks like making-do. Sometimes it looks like making. When I make the beds, I remember that the little girl who once rolled beeswax candles and painted dreamy watercolors at preschool is no longer so little. There is a rippled afghan in a tidy strip at the end of her adult-sized bed. Once, playing dress-up, she could wrap it around and around and around herself. Now, it lies on her bed, neatly, like a memory.
I made that blanket with a crochet hook and pure wool yarn. The fact that it is wool, rather than acrylic, has always mattered to me. As if wool links my love for my daughter, and my prayers for her well-being, to the larger world in a way that acrylic could not do. Though, I admit, I have a mini crisis of faith every single time the blanket needs to be washed.
These days, I have a lot less time for crochet. I have four children, a large garden, and work I love. Finding the time and energy for making dinner sometimes feels like a stretch. But I am adding up the lessons of the past. I am remembering the feel of wood and metal. Flames and wool. And I am wondering what kind of home I am making. And how.
Is a home only the accumulation of a hundred thousand purchasing decisions? I hope not. At least, I don’t want to live as if it is. The modernist architect and designer Le Corbusier famously said that “a house is a machine for living in” (Toward an Architecture, 151). But that isn’t the kind of home I want either.
I think the ideal of home I first glimpsed in that preschool classroom is a place that reflects the importance of bodies. It is wood that is warm to touch. It is little chairs for little legs and bigger chairs for bigger legs. It is objects that ask for the care and creativity of our hands. It is a hearth, or even an electric heater, that gathers us, warming our skin and nurturing our connections with one another.
In so many ways, my ideal home is like the earth itself. Perhaps that is the real reason I eschew plastic and acrylic. Perhaps that is why I love wood and wool. Why I like to see our rooms change with the seasons. I want to remember that I am made from the stuff of earth. I never want to forget that the earth is my God-made home. The sky a tent overhead.
Christie Purifoy earned a PhD in English literature at the University of Chicago before trading the classroom for an old farmhouse and a garden. She lives in southeastern Pennsylvania with her husband and four children and writes regularly at www.christiepurifoy.com. Her first book is forthcoming from Revell.