“shelter from the storm”

by Christie Shumate McElwee

After I graduated college, I lived in an assortment of dwellings, from my first studio apartment with a pull-out couch for a bed to a brick walk-up in Bucktown with tin ceilings and tiny bedrooms. Each place offered its own brand of comfort, despite my dismal lack of funds. I gathered books and cheap trinkets, bought dishes and rugs, and attempted to fill my little places with music and laughter. The furniture was mostly hand-me-downs or items I purchased from friends. One beige and peach sofa I bought cheaply from a friend of a friend in Dallas was awkwardly transported to five different places over the years, but, man, that was the best nap couch. When I was pregnant and couldn’t sleep, it was my sanctuary many nights, and later it became a favorite place for my ex to nap, with our oldest son comfortably asleep on his chest.

From the time I left home (not counting the few times I landed back there to heal) to now, I have lived in fourteen different apartments and houses. Each one unique. Each with its own set of memories and heartache. Apartment walls listened as I cried over breakups. My old rocking chair comforted me as I sang my babies to sleep. The small white cottage in Palatine wept when I gathered my boys up and moved us to another life downstate. I bought my first house on West Decatur and filled it with toys and books and music, and messily attempted to create a joyous childhood for my sons. Many of the small kitchens remained virtually unused until I finally learned how to cook in the house on Cresthaven Avenue. When we moved down to our cozy green gables cottage, we discovered new adventures to explore.

Now home takes on a greater significance. It is our safe place from a virus that is ravaging the globe. My husband and I are privileged to live in a house that has enough space (and internet!) to have him work in his basement office while I write upstairs in the loft. We venture out for walks, he grocery shops once a week, and we occasionally get in the car for long drives. We video chat with the grandchildren. We’ve hosted a few virtual happy hours with friends. Our lives are small now, but our house nurtures us.

Our kitchen table is set for two. A half finished puzzle sits at one end. I long for the day when we have a crowded table, filled with friends and family telling stories and eating pieces of freshly baked apple pie, but we wait patiently until it is safe to gather. 

I hope with all my heart your home is offering you shelter from the storm.

“Come in,” she said
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm”
Shelter from the Storm, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

Watching a storm blow in from the shelter of our top porch.

The Ache for Home

love.

“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” – Maya Angelou, All God’s Children Need Traveling

My husband and I are fans of HGTV. Watching House Hunters, we chuckle as couples wander through three houses, nitpicking every small closet and outdated kitchen. We gasp at some of the prices, even though the structures are run-down and lacking adequate heating and air conditioning. We also love all the rehab shows, especially ones that have quirky pairs (cute Southern couple, mother and daughter, brother and sister) renovating old homes with “good bones.” 

Here’s the thing, though. Neither of us are very handy. We just love to see others demo walls and lime green bathrooms, although we personally have no desire to ever gut a house. The house we bought two years ago was a fairly new build with little need of rehab. We did have wood floors installed, and yes, the kitchen needs a modern overhaul, but that has to wait until we can afford it. For now, we have settled into our little home with the quaint double porches and tiny backyard.

Dictionary.com has 31 definitions of home: twelve nouns, four adjectives, four adverbs, seven verbs, and five idioms. It has 41 of house: twenty-two nouns, eight verbs, four adjectives, and seven idioms. But when posed with the question, what is the difference between a house and a home, most of us will say a house is the physical structure where we keep our stuff, and a home is where we live and love.

The home improvement industry is a billion dollar behemoth. People pour hard earned dollars into expensive tiles, farmhouse sinks, and trendy wallpaper installation. We are taught to believe we won’t be happy without the granite countertops or that top-of-the line gas oven. It is a vicious form of house shaming. How dare you live with popcorn ceilings! What, carpet instead of wood floors? Your house looks like the others on your street? Shame! Shame! Shame!

But here’s the truth. No one really cares. All that is important is this: Does it give YOU joy? It doesn’t matter if you can’t afford the improvements. Just fill your house with love. Cook good food. Display beloved items you’ve collected over the years. Invite family and friends to sit at your table, no matter how battered or small or mismatched your furniture may appear. That is a home.

Don’t despair if your house doesn’t have a pricey Wolf oven (I do covet one, though!) or Carrara white marble in the master bath. Instead, create your own refuge, whether it is downsizing to 1200 square feet, a dramatic dream cottage, or a tiny house on wheels.

Our little home will never win any awards. It has builder grade cabinets and vinyl flooring in the bathrooms, yet I have hung pictures that are dear to me on the walls. Every corner contains stacks of vintage books I have bought over the years. I love antique linens and inspirational sayings. I try to keep fresh flowers on the counter. There is no apparent style, except perhaps “Christie’s Cute Shit,” as my friend Nancy likes to define it. It’s a good thing my husband does not have a strong opinion on how I decorate because our entire house is my personal “She Shed,” complete with pastel florals and fuzzy pink pillows. But when I look at each room, I feel a sense of peace and comfort. Our house is our haven, our refuge, our sanctuary.

My sister Ann and her husband Mike worked for years on the design on their dream house. It took lots of planning and over a year from the demolition of the existing structure to their move-in date, but their home is a gorgeous example of taking a vision on paper and making it a reality. Their Craftsman cottage has layers of light that twinkle off the pond that peeks through the wall of windows that line the back of the house. Its simplistic yet careful design tells their story in every corner. It is a beautiful and inviting home to witness.

After my friend Leslie retired from teaching, she and her husband decided to fulfill their dream of traveling all over the country in their camper. They sold their house, and have recently logged over 24,000 miles since June 2018 with their small white dog Pierre in tow. They wander the country spending time hiking and visiting with family and friends who are scattered around the U.S. Leslie said, “My home is the wonderful spacial surroundings that I share with my husband and Pierre…Now we are kids again, like before children. We are looking for our next campsite all the time. Researching terrain, weather, and last summer avoiding fires.” They have gathered peaches in Georgia and are now headed out to Washington State for cherry season. Soon they will have a new hard sided camper that will offer better protection from harsh weather and bears.

My sister’s Craftsman is a warm, welcoming retreat. Leslie and Mark have found a rolling home where their sanctuary is nature. My husband’s and my haven has a green gabled roofline with a white swing on the front porch and pink roses in the back.

What is your home? Wherever or whatever it is, I hope your home is your heart, because wherever your heart is, you will find home.

“I could be your state and I could be your nation
It doesn’t get better than home, now does it?
Doesn’t get better than home, now does it?
I could be your welcome, I could be your greeter
I could be sweet and I could be sweeter
I want to be where your heart is home”

“Home” songwriter: Zooey Clare Deschanel

Leslie and Mark’s home parked in the desert.
My sister’s view from her deck.
My collections of vintage linens and aprons.

I know not all houses contain a sense of safety. In fact, some are dangerous places where the halls echo with hateful language and hurt feelings. Children cower in closets in order to escape abusive words and fists. I also acknowledge there are many out there who left their homes in order to attempt to give their families a better life, and now may be stuck in dismal refugee camps, worrying about about their futures. Others live alone, with no visitors to brighten their days. Some houses contain sickness, and no amount of fresh paint will cure the illnesses that seep throughout the halls.

I wish I possessed the cures for all these cheerless dwellings. I am not that powerful. I only know my heart aches for those who do not live in a joyful place, be it a trailer or a mansion by the sea. Home should be safe, yet it is a dangerous or sad or harrowing place for many in the world.

Here are a few organizations which you may want to donate money or volunteer your time in order to help families create safe and happy homes. These are only a few. Do your own research. See which fits your heart.

Building Homes for Heroes

The Fuller Center for Housing

Habitat for Humanity

Home for Our Troops

CASA: Court Appointed Special Advocate

International Rescue Committee