There’s nothing like a good suburban house tour to put me in a really bad mood. I succumbed this weekend to the lure of what my Aussie friend calls “having a sticky beak,” otherwise known as snooping around to satisfy your curiosity. Our local high school was holding its annual house tour, a fundraiser common to the suburbs, when people who are either very generous or very showy open their homes to the masses for the good of the cause. I had a free hour, so I coughed up thirty-five dollars and bought myself entry into how the upholstered half lives.
The first time I went on a house tour it was organized by a local historical society, and the houses were chosen for their historical significance. This tour was more typical; it showcased houses that are significant because their owners have spent a lot of time and money fixing them up. We humble visitors slipped plastic booties over our shoes and shuffled through, ogling the appliances—look, a microwave that slides out like a drawer!—and marveling at the fine fabrics, vast walk-in closets and rec rooms with indescribably comfortable couches and flat-screen TVs.
I enjoyed the first two houses I visited, mostly because I could appreciate their beauty without really wishing I could live there. One was too big and just didn’t feel cozy. One was too fancy and a little stiff. But the third, well, that was the bowl of porridge that made my mouth water.
It was an old farmhouse that sat atop a hill. From the inviting front porch, you could look through the trees and down the sloping yard to the street below; the backyard was flat and enormous, big enough to hold a trampoline, a swing set, a patio for outdoor dining, and still have space to play ball or grow vegetables. Sun poured into the living room and dining room, which were original to the house, bathing the buttery wooden floors and exquisite yet inviting furniture in a warm light.
The new part of the house was larger, but blended perfectly with the old. It had obviously been designed with great attention not just to aesthetics, but to the functional needs of the family. The kitchen was gleaming but not too big, and despite the Sub-Zero fridge and Wolf stove (of course) didn’t feel too fancy or grand. A sturdy, round, wooden table in the family room was perfect for casual dining or homework; the couches in the other half of the room practically commanded a lazy afternoon.
There was room for everyone and everything. There was a mudroom and a large open closet with built-in shelves divided by sport: hockey equipment here; soccer cleats and shin guards over here. Above the new attached garage was a bright play room, with separate areas for train tracks, Lego, Guitar Hero, and a Nerf basketball hoop.
This house made it appear possible to raise a family of rowdy boys and live an orderly, organized, aesthetically lovely life. And that’s what put me in a bad mood. It’s one thing to see a picture-perfect family home in a magazine and tell yourself “well, no one really lives like that” as you flip the page. It’s another thing to walk through one in your own neighborhood.
I left feeling awed and envious, and mad at myself for indulging the sentiment. But my mood only worsened when I walked onto our front porch and had to climb over two skateboards, a ripstick, and a pair of fishing waders to get to the front door. It worsened more when I found my son in our cluttered kitchen making a “lunch” of chocolate chips melted on a bagel. When I discovered that the automatic garage doors could not be closed because the switch was broken, I let loose with a ridiculous rant—this house is a mess/why is everything broken/why doesn’t anyone clean up around here—until my boys started asking, “What is wrong with you? Why are you suddenly in such a bad mood?”
I started to tell them about the house tour, and then I stopped. Did I really want to make them think that having an organized/decorated/expensive home was the key to happiness? Did I want to encourage them to start comparing our house to fancier houses, rather than reminding them just how fortunate we are to live where and how we do?
It would be nice to renovate our kitchen and turn our basement into a playroom. And someday we might. It would be an improvement, but to our house not our lives. Our house may be a bit chaotic, but it’s already a very happy home. And I’m quite sure you can’t order that from a decorator.