Of homes and houses


‘It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home.’ — Edgar Guest

The distinction between house and home is a complex one. Presumably, a house is simply a structure that a person or people live in, whereas a home is . . . what, exactly? Something more than a house, supposedly, but just what that something is may be hard to specify.

Opinion: Of homes and houses

On the one hand, there’s the story of the young girl whose family was displaced by a tornado. When a friend remarked that it must be difficult to be homeless, she replied, “Oh, we have a home. We just don’t have a house to put it in.”

Still, we describe people with no place to live as homeless, not houseless.

If you live in an apartment building, you don’t, strictly speaking, have a house, but you can still have a home.

Which would you rather go on, a house tour or a home tour? What do you mean when you describe a place as “homey”? What’s the difference between people setting up housekeeping and making a home together? Why do sellers organize an open house but not an open home?

Home, of course, can refer to something other than a mere abode. We have home towns (not home cities, interestingly), and “going home” can mean returning to an area rather than to a particular dwelling place. One can get homesick, but not housesick.

So how does a house become a home? For some people, remodeling a place — making one’s own mark on it — is an important part of the process. That’s why visiting a house you used to live in can be an unsettling experience if subsequent owners have modified it.

But even if you don’t physically change your dwelling place, simply dwelling there alters its essence. It’s Edgar Guest’s “heap o’ livin’” that’s at work in turning house to home. When you first move into a new place, it won’t feel like home. But eventually it will, and that has much to do with the experiences you have there.

In some settled neighborhoods, a house will be known by a particular family, perhaps long after they’ve moved away. “Oh, you live in the Peterson place,” an old-timer says to the newly installed Carlsons, perhaps thrice removed from the property’s namesake.

Homelessness is an existential condtion that can transcend mere dwelling place. Even someone with a place to live may feel perpetually not at home.

The American experiment depended on people willing to leave home, but also on those who kept, and keep, the home fires burning.

“I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger,” says the folk song, “travelling through this world of woe. But there’s no sickness, toil or danger in that sweet home to which I go.”

This notion, that there’s some supernal home we’re bound for, is a powerful one that finds some kind of expression in most religions. But even the most irreligious among us have probably, at least from time to time, felt the truth of Dorothy’s mantra near the end of “The Wizard of Oz”: “There’s no place like home.”