Janet Sheridan: House watching

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Janet Sheridan

During my working years, I used to run for exercise before dawn. My misery at the early hour faded as I chugged past homes with open drapes and lighted interiors.

Sleep-mussed people yawning in their kitchens didn’t interest me, but their homes did.

As I passed lit windows, I slowed, stifled my heavy breathing to prevent 911 calls, and looked for indications of the lives the inhabitants led: a piano heaped with music, a weaver’s loom, shelves of books, trophy animal heads, beer steins on a windowsill.

I liked thinking about the activities and enjoyments of those sheltered by the homes.

When Joel and I take road trips, my imagination is ignited by abandoned homesteads that once held families: the sway-backed log cabins or paint-scabbed frame houses that stand beneath gnarled trees.

I picture a work-lean father striding across the yard; a toddler hanging on his mother as she hangs sheets on the clothesline; a teenage boy sitting on the kitchen steps, working a sliver from his thumb.

Sometimes, I wonder what people think when they drive by my childhood homes: one a rubble of blackened bricks from the fire that destroyed it; the other surrounded by fruit trees that were sprigs when I went away to college.

That house looks so small to me now: seven rooms housing a family of eight — nine when Lawrence was home on leave.

How did we manage with one bathroom, questionable plumbing and a furnace that suffered from chronic-fatigue syndrome?

We didn’t bat an eye when Dad banged stubborn pipes about or when black smoke billowed from the vents as he swore at the furnace. Both were as familiar as the sound of Mom working in the kitchen.

But, I remember no ongoing uproar over property rights to the bathroom.

Recently, I asked my siblings how we maintained peace with three teenagers who primped, three youngsters who defied, and one bathroom. We remembered little rancor: no rigid schedules, no major fight, and only occasional door-pounding and whining, “You’ve been in there forever, Carolyn. Let me in right now, or I’m telling Mom.”

When I compare my various homes with a mcmansion I stayed in when I worked with teachers in Aspen for a week, my modest homes seem superior.

I remember following behind the principal who hired me as she drove into the mountains to an estate she managed. The owners of the rarely used second home let her accommodate guests there when they were absent.

“It’s magnificent,” I thought when I saw my temporary home.

We continued driving.

I had admired the caretaker’s cottage where the principal lived with her husband.

Then I saw my lodging, the extravagant type of home featured in magazines and movies: copper kettles hanging in an extensive kitchen, huge panes of glass overlooking the valley in a living room big enough to host a gymnastics meet and a jungle of special-purpose rooms for tasting wine, doing crafts, watching movies, reading books, playing pool and sweating.

I felt dwarfed, unimportant. My voice echoed. I wandered around lost. Finally, I noticed an alcove just off the kitchen with two easy chairs, a view, and a gas fireplace that welcomed me to take up residence.

“Where,” I wondered, “does the family gather to talk, laugh and bicker? Not at King Arthur’s roundtable in the cavernous dining room or in the commercial-grade kitchen with no seating.

“They’d have to yell at one another from the five couches scattered around the living room. And the eight bedrooms with private baths are a mile away: upstairs and downstairs and around too many corners. How do they call everybody to dinner?”

Sour grapes, perhaps. But their house reminded me of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and I couldn’t imagine that it gave the owners and their family any sense of shared lives, of coziness and comfort, of home.

I didn’t see how they could feel as I do when I enter my house, or peek into the windows of yours.

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