Maria met us at the back gate. She wore a sheer purple tunic over her bathing suit and in her hand was a glass with what looked like coca cola in it. The midafternoon heat was sweltering, and a cold soft drink sounded amazing, but she didn’t offer and I didn’t ask. We shook hands, meeting in person for the first time. David and I followed her through the gate into a spectacularly manicured lawn. We were entering the property through the back. The plants and trees were planted with such perfect intention that they provided just the right amount of space, color, and shade. I coveted that garden. We walked up to the left to see the pool — a wonderful oasis of cool, clean, refreshing water, all the more appealing on this summer’s day. As we approached the back porch, complete with wood pergola, awning, and wrought iron furniture, David and I exchanged a look. This could not possibly be any more inviting. We were in love with this place already. We were picturing our children bathing in the pool, kicking a soccer ball in the grass, enjoying a barbecue dinner on the porch…
Having done this many times already, we should have been prepared for the inside of the house. Inevitably, though, our hopes get the better of us. Reality hit when Maria took us through the sliding glass door into the living room. The space was too small for our family of 8, the kitchen was old and smelled of thousands of home-cooked meals, and every wall and corner in the house jumped out blaringly in need of repair. We understood that this would not be the home for us.
Maria, on the other hand, walked us through her childhood home with pride. She lovingly showed us every memory-filled room, talking about the closets that had been built, the lighting in the hallway, the secret storage room hidden behind the bookshelf. She admitted the bathrooms would benefit from a minor upgrade, yet there was nothing in this house that in her eyes needed changing. We walked alongside her, trying hard to follow her memories but knowing nothing about them. We wanted to look past the dollar signs flashing in our heads, holding onto what was for Maria the pure joy of a complete childhood. I wondered whether Maria could see the transformation in our faces as we moved from hopeful to polite. I felt bad to discover that her mother had recently passed away, making Maria’s attachment to the home that much stronger.
At the end of our visit, we shook hands again and said good-bye, promising to reach out if we wanted to see the house again. As we got into the car, David said simply “No way.” And of course, there was no way. But I thought about Maria and her house for days. There was no escaping the fact that in Maria’s eyes, the house was perfect, and it made me think about the nature of home. Home. Where families share memories, kindness, sorrow, laughter. Where kids fight, parents fight, kids and parents fight with each other. Where we share tears and hugs. And meals. So. Many. Meals.
Since we walked through Maria’s home, I have entered into each of the 20 houses we have seen in the last week (yes, we have seen a lot) with compassion. I have tried to imagine the families that lived there, their energy, and the personality of the home. Of course there is a lot to be said for structure, size, and distribution — a house will either work for our family or it won’t. But even more important than the physical characteristics is the potential the house has to become Home.
Putting our own house on the market has been hard for us to do (but when you are on the verge of having four kids in college at the same time, there are real, hard decisions parents have to make). Having invested so much time, energy, love and yes, money, into making our family house a home, the realization that others may not walk through the place that we live in with such compassion is humbling. There is no greater exercise in empathy that putting yourself in another’s shoes, is there?
Tomorrow, the first visitors will come through our home. David, with full self-awareness, will go to Starbucks while they are here.
I can only hope that after they leave they will carry with them a sense of our joy.