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At Home

“Ah! There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort.” ~ Jane Austen, Emma

The sanctuary we felt in our childhood homes. The adventure of visiting historic house museums on summer vacations. The thrill of going to bed and waking up in ancient buildings and towns. Experiences like these fueled our love of old houses—every part of them, from wavy glass in the windows, crackled paint, and slope-y floors to that last grateful glance around the shadowed room before turning out the light.

“At home” means different things to different people at different times. Of course, there’s “make yourself at home”, as in, be comfortable. Or, once upon a time, “at home” meant ready to receive visitors. Alas, Mrs. van der Luyden is not presently “at home” during these strange days of social distancing (would this relic of Colonial American aristocracy have adopted Zoom—who knows?). Many Americans now #wfm. Interesting that it’s “work from home” instead of “work at home”, suggesting an outward, rather than inward, orientation. Home remains the daily point of departure, even when we can’t go out. (And if we don’t want the outside world to see inside our homes, there’s always the virtual background feature.)

As much of the country went on lockdown, The New York Times launched a feature called “At Home” that spoons out cozy topics like cooking, reading, watching, and self-care. While I’ve engaged in my fair share of baking, tea-drinking, and long solitary runs over the past few weeks, on one level I realize this is its own form of escapism, food for my introverted soul. Reality and—even more—uncertainty are overwhelming. And so I’ve cleaned out closets, vacuumed under beds, and stripped hardware, using my hands to focus my mind.

I’ve always liked the line from Voltaire’s Candide, “Let us cultivate our garden.” And Bernstein’s musical rendering, “We’ll build our house and chop our wood and make our garden grow.” This kind of hands-on stewardship seems especially important now. Even I—a preservationist whose business is literally “home-making”—find that I’ve neglected some basic nurturing around my own house and backyard. And I feel more strongly than ever about supporting farms and other local businesses that are doing their best to weather this storm.

Our own At Home project is rooted in the joy and comfort we’ve discovered in the “gardens” cultivated by others. Sharing houses that have been carefully rehabilitated is something like giving a friend a helping of your bumper zucchini crop. Or, taking it to the next level, setting up a roadside farm stand. While we’ve put short-term rentals on hold for the safety of our local community, we’re glad that a NYC-area family contacted us early on to secure several-months’ refuge (and a big yard for their kids to play) in the yellow house. The recently completed (a relative term!) circa-1800 house is hosting neighbors who need extra space—and the all-important WiFi—to work remotely. And a third house became home to a young family seeking to relieve the burden on a kindly aunt who had taken them in. Now everyone can “shelter in place” and try to enjoy more of the upsides of 24/7 togetherness…

As for my own family, we’re all thankful to be well, to be gainfully employed, to have a comfortable house (with WiFi and, yes, a garden), and to love each other. This era began with the epic disappointment of cancelling a trip to stay at Kinross House in Scotland. Instead of afternoon tea, scenic rambles, and boozy dinners in a glorious 17th-century house, we surrendered to quarantine in our far less stately upstate home. Lordly dreams will hold for another time. For now, I have doors to paint and beds to tend.