Growing up, my definition of home was constant. From the moments I could begin to remember my surroundings, home meant a uniform, off-white carpet, vacuumed weekly and shampooed once a year. The living room was a love seat on one side and, at a right angle, a three-seater sofa, whether upholstered with a bluish weave or, years later, a white leather. No coffee tables figured into the concept, resulting instead in an open space that was the perfect size for childhood cartwheeling, or sprawling with a zoo of stuffed animals, or creating a sea of gift wrap on Christmas Eve. Home meant a long hallway, transformed into a highway for guinea pig races, and cumulating in the bathroom, the door almost never closed, so that sometimes we would have to scoop our guinea pigs up from behind the toilet. For a long time, home also included windows that would accumulate condensation on the coldest winter nights, which would necessitate the appearance of a squeegee and result in a handful of damp towels.
The first time that I realized that home could look very, very different was midway through elementary school, during a visit to either a distant family relative or a close family acquaintance. I had never been inside of a home that wasn’t a single-family house, without its own front porch and its own backyard. This home, however, was a one room situation, with beds and kitchenware and laundry and food packages in the same little four-walled space. I didn’t comprehend why we had to walk up a flight of stairs or turn a corner down a hallway to get to what they called their home, or why the people who lived there needed keys to open a door inside a building. This is probably the first studio apartment that I can remember. “See,” my parents scolded, “you can’t complain that our house is small!” But, surely, there were other rooms, I was convinced; it didn’t really dawn on me that the room I saw was the entirety of where these people lived.
As more birthdays passed, and I became accustomed to sleepovers at friends’ homes and spent more time at my grandparents’ place, I grew aware of the characteristics that distinguished their homes from mine. I was curious what it was like to trip up and down the stairs every morning and every night in a two story house, and amazed by my friends’ effortless ability to run down the stairs without looking at where the next step was (in fact, I still have to look at my feet when I’m headed down). Many of my peers had learned piano growing up, and the glossy uprights in their living rooms seemed to possess a look-but-don’t-touch aura, lest I leave behind a smudge of tell-tale fingerprints on their surfaces. Our next-door neighbors had a sunken living room with a smooth, tiled floor and an enormous wall of books, while my grandparents had a dining room that not only had a swinging door to the kitchen but a pristine set of French doors that were always open to the adjacent living room, the glass panels faceted in a grand manner to reflect the San Francisco light. To me, these rooms were a curiosity, a place where people enacted imaginary scenes that seemed decidedly different from the mundane things that I did at home. It wasn’t until much later, when I was in college, that I started to muse upon what it might be like if I lived in these place. Confronted by many options of apartments to rent, as well as endless décor possibilities, I began to realize that home could look different from the familiar setting of my childhood.
What has become apparent to me is that, no matter how many times I move, there are some aspects of home that don’t change. Like my mom, I prefer my tabletops uncluttered when not in use, relegating objects to cupboards and shelves and closets. My bed will always have a both a fitted sheet and a flat sheet, and the duvet will always be pulled down so that the flat sheet folds over it. These are little preferences, the kinds of quirks that have little to do with necessity, but a lot to do with quality of life and the habits of my own lifestyle.
The strange thing, then, is that only humans would seem to live in this manner, surrounded by things and objects that define our lifestyles and tastes and habits. Consider a common backyard bird. If you were to ask any child where a bird lives, the answer would probably be a nest. A nest may be lined with the softest grasses, the strongest twigs, or maybe a few eye-catching threads in various colors, but it’s not a roomy dwelling. It accommodates only the watchful parent and the eggs upon which it sits, or, later, a squirming cacophony of featherless babies—there is no object comparable to a dining table, or a sink, or a bookshelf. A nest has no roof, and the walls hardly provide protection from chilly winds or annoying neighbors. Furthermore, a nest is a transient residence. In a manner of weeks, the young become adolescents and fly away, and the next spring, the parents will build a new nest, or re-purpose an abandoned nest from a stranger. One could say that there is little connection between a bird and its childhood home, and during the winter, it’s a mystery where the birds live at all.
More social animals, like rabbits and bees, make homes that are reasonably analogous to undergraduate dorms or high rise apartment buildings. Rabbit warrens consist of networks of burrows, with distinctions made between nurseries and dens and other living spaces, not dissimilar to a college co-habitation situation (that is, if baby bunnies lived in dorms). Beehives are even more organized structures, with separate, carefully-formed cells for food reserves (whether honey or the highly-prized royal jelly) or the nursing of young larvae. However well these homes are engineered, though, they are still bare-bone and spartan in comparison to their human counterparts, where furnishings, accessories, and entertainment reign.