The place we call home is ours for a (relatively) short time. We invest money and effort into it. We live our life there. But at some point we will move on, and it will pass to someone else. Once they move in, it is like we never existed.
We share our homes with the ghosts of the people who have lived there before us – and the people who come after us. Lives that were just as full – and just as mundane. In a parallel universe our lives overlap; as we get up in the morning, go to bed at night and live a life in between.
In older houses it is easy to imagine past inhabitants, perhaps in period clothes, huddled around a range, or open fire, or the radio: living without electricity, bathroom, internet, TV, central heating. They will have looked out that same window onto the street, they climbed these stairs and entered these rooms. Their bed, is likely to be placed in the same position in that room. And now, it is a different bed, new occupants, different décor and different time, but essentially the space is still the same.
Houses only survive because they are continually being adapted and changed. They may be divided, extended or undergo superficial and major alterations: a lick of paint, layers of wallpaper, new doors, the removal of fireplaces, new bannisters, new bathroom. Chunks may be added on – or removed, lofts transformed, kitchens extended and gardens landscaped. They may be re-painted, re-clad, re-windowed, re-roofed to suit our own tastes, to modernise, maintain and protect them.
Most of us would not be so keen to live a Victorian or Edwardian life ( smokey fires, gas light, outside toilet, scullery kitchen). We may like a house for its style ( high ceilings, doors, ceiling rose, fireplaces) and location, but we also want all mod cons and so we need to marry the two.
Homes are continually altered to suit our ever-changing circumstances, lifestyles, opportunities and attitudes. Fashions come and go. We soon get bored with the same old, same old. We outgrow our own tastes and we become more sophisticated, more ethically aware, more ‘in’ to different things. Sometimes, we just want something different.
We also want what other people have, and to move with the times. As times change, we change, and that affects how we live.
Our home as a backdrop to events in our lives. Significant events made memorable, mundane events, forgotten in the routine. Getting up every morning, bathing (weekly/ daily), doing homework, washing windows, bringing in coal, going out to the yard, making bread, doing laundry, cooking, putting on makeup, drinking tea, putting groceries away, watching TV.
And when we occupy the same place for a long time there are also the ghosts of our younger selves: before arthritic knees and the stairs became too much; when the children were young; significant birthdays; through good news, bad news; with loved ones who have passed, grown up or moved away.
But we also remember those curtains, that carpet, that colour and pattern. These elements act as triggers for an era, from our past and for collective, shared memory. Because that is what everybody did, and had, based on the choices that were available. And so, from a simple design choice that defined a decade, we often see the power of memory of place and space used within dementia studies, to re-connect people to a time when they were younger, fit and well.
Letters addressed to us may continue to come long after we have left – evidence that this was once our home too. That we lived here. And we may hope that longstanding neighbours will still remember us – after so many years. But if they do, it will be as a sequence of people who lived there before and after.
This ever-shifting flow of people living in the same place, over time, is what makes a house a home. But it is also what shapes communities, people and places.
It is a dynamic, intimate and powerful relationship. One that gives life to a space and establishes lasting connections and deep-rooted memories.