Turning a house into a home

It isn’t something you can buy, no matter how rich you are. It springs from the heart, and we just call it love.

Turning a house into a home (photo credit: MARY GREATHEAD/FLICKR)
Turning a house into a home
‘Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home” ran the words of a popular song in my childhood. The difference between a house and a home is hard to define, yet the moment you enter someone’s abode, you know into what category it falls.
It is not a matter of decor. There are houses that are virtual palaces, which are in such perfect taste that you are certain that an interior decorator played a role. The carpets are so deep, your feet sink into them. Tasteful, aesthetic paintings grace the walls, chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and the furniture is either genuine antique or expensively modern with clean, stark lines. Nothing is out of place. You admire it, of course, the way you might appreciate a museum, but not for a second do you envisage living in it yourself, even if you could afford it. Why is that?
And then there are houses that, like the words of the song, are truly humble. The furniture is shabby and mismatched, the floors are bare except for a few rugs, and maybe there’s not even a comfortable place to sit. Yet there are bright cushions, lots of family photos, a cat or dog curled up somewhere, and perhaps music playing, and shelves full of books and magazines that just cry out for you to browse through them. And you know you’re in a home.
My childhood home was like that. We were poor back then, and my mother never owned her own home – we rented it for 25 years. It was spacious but badly planned, with a long, narrow corridor with rooms running off it. The laundry and toilet were in the backyard, and the kitchen lacked all the appliances we take for granted today.
But the moment you entered, you knew it was a real home. “Welcome” was on the mat, and the brass door knocker gleamed.
The lounge room, as we called the front room where we entertained, had a lovely blue carpet that a client, who couldn’t pay my father’s bill in those Depression years, gave him instead.
The family’s pride and joy was in that room – a pianola or player piano with dozens of rolls. What parties we had, long before the era of TV! Anyone could push the pedals and out came the songs, while we all stood around and sang. Everything from “Roll out the barrel” to operatic arias like “Your tiny hand is frozen” from La bohème.
There were lots of photos and some paintings we got as gifts from a beloved artist friend. Our silver candlesticks, somewhat tarnished, sat on the sideboard next to the glass wine decanter we used on Friday nights. A glass case held trophies – cups my brothers won for swimming, running and hurdling. And there were books – not beautiful sets bound in leather just for show, but books with torn covers and dog-eared pages that showed they had been read, over and over again, read and cried over and loved and cherished.
The most wonderful smells wafted through the house. My mother’s cooking was plain and wholesome but delicious – roast lamb with mint sauce; a savory stew with walnuts and capers; steamed date puddings and comforting custards smooth as velvet; a shepherd’s pie when money was shorter than usual. We had little in the way of material possessions, but I never remember being short of food. Mum could turn the simplest ingredients into a delicious meal, and I still use many of her recipes today.
Our dining room had an open grate, and we would roast chestnuts in the fire in winter, and make toast.
Mum would show me pictures in the flames and glowing coals – castles and dragons and princes on white chargers. Her stories fed my imagination, and were the catalyst for my becoming a writer.
She was always there for me. I never came home from school to an empty house. There was a hug and a kiss and a ready ear for my problems, cocoa and sympathy.
And that is the magic ingredient that turns a house into a home. It isn’t something you can buy, no matter how rich you are. It springs from the heart, and we just call it love.

The writer is the author of 14 books. Her latest novel is Searching for Sarah.