Jenny Dunning


Two weeks of wet cold, a light freeze one night, and now a warm, sunny day. The cat sleeps, belly up, on the cushioned chair on our screened porch. The dog lies in a spot of sun on the grass in the backyard, while our four hens scratch and peck under the bushes nearby. My garden, save the green beans that need warmer soil, is planted—heirloom tomatoes, basil and other herbs, cucumber, zucchini, and yellow squash—set in freshly turned-up ground and nestled in straw, a hedge against the chilly night still possible in Minnesota in May. My cool-hardy plants have been in for weeks—lettuces, spinach, beets, turnips, bok choy, broccoli, snap peas, onions, and garlic planted last fall, potatoes, strawberries. This is my fourth year at growing our own vegetables, and now I know more or less what will do well where.

A garden in spring is like a new baby—all promise.

I’m a homebody. The word itself gives pleasure, the repetition of the long o sounds, the way the m draws itself out, catlike, only to be tucked in by the mutes b and d and then the final long vowel making it all friendly, like a nickname. The word sounds old-fashioned and British to my ear, but I find out otherwise: the earliest usage on record is James Fenimore Cooper’s 1822 novel The Spy—it’s an American coinage, which seems fitting, once I think about it. We Americans, with our idealism that is all bound up in dreams of a better life so often conflated with a bigger, better house. I can’t find anything in the dictionaries or etymologies about the circumstances under which the word arose. But I do learn that home took on different connotations in the U.S. than in Britain: early on it became associated with a free-standing house as opposed to any place one lives. Curiously, the negative associations of the word homely are also of American origin, hinting at our bifurcated attitude toward the idea of home; we at once glorify it (and spend a great deal of money acquiring and beautifying it) and demean it, equating it with ugliness and backwardness.

On the Internet, I come across a quiz that will tell me if I’m the homebody I claim to be. I do find reasons not to travel (the only thing I like about traveling is coming home). But I don’t feel unsafe when not at home, nor prefer staying home to a party (well, okay, it depends on the party). I don’t have the hot tub or big screen TV one question specifies. If I provide my email address as requested, I’ll probably get a slew of solicitations to purchase them. I defer.

It’s surprising, actually, that I am such a homebody. As centered as I am on my home, I’ve moved often, all my life, for one reason or another—my father’s job, school, marriage, divorce, my own jobs. Eighteen moves to new communities in my near-fifty years, as best as I can count. And with each move, a burst of energy to make the new apartment, new house, mine: clean every surface (something I don’t do particularly frequently or thoroughly, once I’ve moved in), paint, remodel, plant: settle. I acquire animals—dogs, cats, a guinea pig, the four laying hens I keep now. I husband—no, wife!—my plot of land, regardless of size. You’d think I’d get tired of the effort and learn to make do. But if anything, it’s the opposite. Despite not knowing how long we’ll stay, since moving to Minnesota, my husband and I have redone the kitchen and both bathrooms, painted the whole interior, rescreened the porch, installed new living room windows, refinished the old oak floor we discovered underneath the carpet, and we’ve just started overhauling the basement. Outside, we’ve established raspberries along the east side of the house, planted three large maples and some red cedars we got in a hail sale, an attempt to create more privacy in our backyard; constructed the chicken yard and a garden shed; and transformed the front-yard perennial garden, more weeds than perennials when we arrived, into a walkway flower garden and the vegetable garden that feeds us all summer.

I’m a settler, all the way down.

But it’s more complicated than that. For all the energy I invest in homemaking, I also resent it. Partly, I resent the burden of keeping things up. By fall, the straight rows of vegetables and neat clumps of perennials have run riot; the stairway to our front door has become nearly impassable for tomato branches and cucumber vines (grown inextricably together); the lettuce has gone to seed; the snap peas, long dead, hang from their trellis; squash borers have decimated the zucchini; and self-seeding perennials (garden flox, cone flowers, daisies, goldenrod) mixed with outright weeds fill in every available spot of ground. I can’t wait for the snow that will hide the mess until next spring. Inside, entropy builds without hope of camouflaging cover. And all the small dissatisfactions of a particular house come to loom large. In this house it’s the dusty smell I can’t clean away. Besides, no matter what renovations we make, it’s still a 1950s ranch. And the neighbors . . . What I really want is to live on enough land where I can’t see or hear a neighbor from my house—or a neighbor’s power tools (the guy across the street has several for each season—weed whacker, leaf blower, snow blower, lawn mower, power saws and sanders, who knows what else).

Where does this longing for an ideal house come from? I don’t have to look far for that answer: my mother. The other day, on the phone, my mother complained that none of us four kids share her values. What she means is that we don’t live like she does (we can’t afford to), and we don’t value what she calls “nice things.” And it’s me whose defection grates most on her. The oldest, I spent many childhood afternoons with my mother, just the two of us, looking through endless fabric and wallpaper samples in the back offices of interior decorators’ showrooms. My childhood family moved often, too, and decorating each new house was my mother’s primary job. More importantly, I realize now, she was grooming me for the future she wanted for me: someone who would carry forward her ideas of good taste. To be told I had “beautiful taste”—that was the ultimate compliment bestowed on me as I was growing up, sometimes in approval, sometimes as encouragement. But at some point, as I tried on different selves and backed away from this ideal of taste, which I’ve come to recognize as just another name for class, my mother ceased telling me I have good taste. Now she frets because none of her children will properly value the beautiful things she has spent her life collecting, and the beautiful things she inherited from my grandmother. Who will treasure my grandmother’s jewelry, her antique china, the teapot that was once used to serve George Washington? In my small house, they’ll likely never get unpacked, let alone worn to the right sort of events or brought out for an elegant party.

But of course, I’ve simply redefined my notion of taste. I may not frequent decorator showrooms, but I put more energy into my home than any other endeavor. I’m still my mother’s daughter. And my house is full of things beautiful to me, though my collections have little monetary value. Mostly, they are pieces my children have made: clay sculptures and pottery, hand-blown glass bowls and vases, pen and ink drawings I’ve framed. My daughters are both gifted artists; besides being beautiful, their creations bring me the pleasure of remembering their younger selves. Amid the art are the fossils Steve and I collected when we lived in Florida—bowls filled with the prehistoric sharks’ teeth that wash up on the beaches from Sarasota to Englewood, and the larger Pleistocene mammal bones dug up from quarries, including a “stomach stone” (gastrolith), whale vertebra, Eocene horse leg bones. (We’ve collected Ordovician fossils in Minnesota too— mostly fragments, they’re less spectacular, though much older.)

Where did this human impulse to surround ourselves with objects that please us originate? Do other primates do this? Surely domesticity is as characteristic of human behavior as tool making and complex thought. I recently read about a zoo-dwelling orangutan who hid a piece of wire in his mouth that he used to pick a lock and escape repeatedly from his enclosure: tool use and complex, even devious, thought. But the only reference to domesticity and primates I can find is that to chimps, home is their troop community, not a place. (Maybe humans would be better off with a similar orientation, though with chimps it doesn’t preclude acting nasty toward other troop members.)

You’d think I would have learned my lesson: that home is not a reliable route to happiness. The last seven years of my first marriage I let a house hold me hostage. “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater, had a wife and couldn’t keep her. So he put in her a pumpkin shell, and there he kept her very well.” The rhyme’s bawdy interpretation may be historically correct—that Peter put his unfaithful wife in a chastity belt, colloquially called a pumpkin shell—but to me the rhyme never required elaborate interpretation: brought up in a household with traditional gender it made perfect sense to my child-self that husbands be expected to provide their wives a house. But it wasn’t a pumpkin shell that kept me in my marriage; it was my dream house, a three story, custom-designed house on Little Sarasota Bay. Upstairs, kids rooms with a shared bath, a guest room and spacious master bedroom suite, all carpeted in plush wall-to-wall; downstairs, a blond wood floor, generous living room that opened out onto a screened porch with a view of the bay; oh what a kitchen—six-burner stove, double oven, an island as big as my present kitchen, where I set the kids up with endless craft projects while I cooked on the other side; I could go on and on. Recalling the house now, I realize that the design was a contemporary version of the New England colonial house I grew up in—private spaces relegated to the upstairs, public to downstairs. It wasn’t perfect (neighbor problems, and a busy road), but I knew that I would never have a house as close to my ideal again—and so far, that’s been true.

Still, it wasn’t any reason to stay in an abusive marriage for thirteen years. Here’s the picture that rises up when I think back on that time: the morning after one of the many violent episodes, this one the night he pushed me down and ground my head into the bag of soiled diapers I was carrying to the trash, there I am, on hands and knees in the back yard, digging and pulling and hacking at the roots of weeds so entrenched I needed a mattock, preparing the ground to plant morning glories. I couldn’t tell anyone what was happening in my marriage. I had nowhere to go. I stayed and took it out on those weeds. Maybe this history accounts, in part at least, for my ambivalence about homemaking.

I’m not the only one who invests too much capital, emotional as well as financial, in my home. One need only look at the Sunday newspaper “Home” section to see how obsessed Americans are with home decorating, with gardens, with new homes.

A developer, among other entrepreneurial roles, my first husband’s obsession with home improvement was extreme. To get ideas, he insisted we spend weekends touring model homes up and down the Florida coasts. We visited hundreds of them. For years, I held out the hope that the right house, the right community, could solve our marital problems (yes, there’s a logic problem here—I already lived in my dream house). I had an idea back then for a short story about a marriage in which the couple went from model home to model home, making love in the decorator-showcase bedrooms, the only place they could be intimate with each other. Such an odd cultural opposition we Americans have—our fixation with settling down, with going through the motions of settling down (often with all new appurtenances—new retirees moving to Florida frequently jettison all their old furniture, buy new) and this ever-readiness to pick up and start over, our perpetual optimism for a fresh start.

I’d like to say I’m done with all that. But just last weekend, driving home from a family visit to St. Louis, Steve and I found ourselves in Decorah, Iowa, a small college town we’d long wanted to explore. Navigating in three inches of new snow, we toured the campus of Luther College, then parked on a side street in the quaint downtown, walked around, found a bar with good sandwiches and a big selection of beer on tap. Our kind of place. Our kind of town. Maybe we could get a job teaching at Luther, we said. As if living in Decorah, Iowa would really make our life better.

Stuff could be the problem: the cycle of wanting. We’ve redone the living room, now we need a loveseat, another armchair. An Oriental carpet would look nice. Always just one more thing, the absence of which takes up more (mental) space than its presence once we get it.

Last summer, my daughter Rachel took me to Anathoth, the commune in Luck, Wisconsin, where she’d stayed for several weeks in the spring. She much admired the founding family’s lifestyle, and wanted to share it with me. Barb and Mike welcome visitors, as long as they pull their weight (in weeds) in the gardens, or perform other needed tasks. Barb and Mike have lived on this fifty acres in the middle of nowhere for some thirty years—raised their kids there, followed their passions for peace and justice, and recently thrown themselves into sustainable agriculture. I’m not ready to do without hot water, but I was impressed at how simply and well they live in general. They take time for leisurely meals, reading books, sing-a-longs. While there I leafed through their copy of Peter Menzel’s Material World. A National Geographic project from the 1990s; the book documents families and their belongings, including photographs of each family with all their belongings piled on the street in front of their home. It’s truly outrageous, the disparity between number and type of belongings between families from affluent countries and the rest of the world. The family from Mali owns no toys, indeed nothing unessential—three low-to-the-ground chairs, a bicycle, mortars and pestles, baskets, pots, tubs, that’s it. I imagine the contents of my house spread out on the dead-end street we live on: a gigantic yard sale of beds, couches, chairs, dressers, armoires, desks, bookcases, tables, every surface covered with cookware and gadgets, all the latest kitchen-arts machines, Steve’s tools, my garden equipment, books and books and books, clothes and clothes and clothes, my children’s childhood mementos. Where would it end? Surely I can do without so much stuff.

Lately, Steve and I have been talking about starting over again—building a simple cabin, raising much of our own food, minimizing living expenses however we can. Or another version—life on the road, pulling a pop-up camper, teaching ourselves to feel at home anywhere. (It’s me who needs to learn, who probably can’t learn. Before we lived together and eventually married, Steve was close to being such a nomad. He took pride in being able to fit all his belongings in his two-door Honda Civic. When we argue, it’s usually about the stuff that weighs down our life together. Periodically he sweeps through the house, looking for anything we no longer use to give away.)

But aren’t these dreams just new versions of the old dream of finding the perfect house, perfect community, solving all my problems? Truth is, I’m a homebody who never feels completely at home. I’m out in the cold November rain planting next summer’s garlic before the ground freezes—and I’m daydreaming about my next home, the one that’s going to stick.

Maybe I’ve just moved too many times. I’m reading Mourid Barghouti’s memoir about exile, I Saw Ramallah. Away at college in Egypt when the 1967 Six Day War occurred, he was not allowed to return to his home village in Palestine for thirty years. Later, he was also exiled for a time from his adopted home in Cairo. When he eventually returned to both places, they were not as he had imagined them; physical details had changed; friends’ lives had gone on without him. He writes, “My relationship with place is in truth a relationship with time.” Reading, I find his forbearance and resignation to the situation inspiring and sad: exile was not his choice. But we Americans willingly sever ourselves from our past. It’s part of who we are, it’s part of who I am. Each move creates a new discontinuity.

Growing up, we kids were always the last to learn we were moving. My parents would call a family meeting and announce the news, after they had already visited the new city, purchased the new house, decided where we would go to school. At thirteen, my friends in Connecticut and I wondered if there were Indians in Indiana—none of us had traveled beyond the East Coast. And moving to Indiana in 1975 did prove a culture shock, though not because of Indians: bell bottom jeans and make-up, both anathema to my copycat Ivy-League-student identity, were de rigueur for high-school girls. But of course, I adjusted. A year later we moved to Ohio. Then St. Paul. Now, I suspect my mother suffered the most from our frequent moves. If she knew earlier, she had no more say in the matter than we did. My father’s career came first. She’s become, over the years, a person who can’t be happy. Retired now, my parents live in a mountain resort town in Colorado. My mother complains about the weather, the community, the church, my father, the fact that her four children live so far away and rarely visit—much as she lived far away from her parents, which became increasingly difficult as they aged and grew infirm and died.

There’s a pattern here: my own children are similar, one attending college in Ohio, another in North Carolina, my oldest working in South Korea. None anticipate ever living full-time in Minnesota again. This isn’t what I wanted for us! But Minnesota has been for them only a temporary home, a place they moved to because I did. Summers are too buggy, winters too cold, the people unwelcoming. And when I’m in one of my darker moods, I feel the same—save my job, there’s nothing to keep us here, certainly not the weather.

But I never imagined the changes that would occur in Steve’s and my life in the months since originally drafting this essay: we sold our house and moved into a rental apartment over a junk shop (Steve prefers the phrase “curiosity shop”) on Main Street in the small town of Wabasha, Minnesota. We’re learning to live on a tight budget, though we’re not growing vegetables or raising animals— our only outside space is a second-floor screened porch. To empty our trash or get the dog out to do his business requires at minimum a walk around the block (at least four times a day, for the dog, regardless of weather). Our apartment has four rooms—the two back rooms Steve and I use for offices, a windowless room that serves as a large walk-in closet, and the big room that encompasses kitchen, pantry, living room, bedroom. To call the kitchen basic is an understatement: two feet of counter space, an erratic electric stove, old refrigerator with jerry-rigged shelves, and not nearly enough cupboard space for the few dishes and pans I brought. Hardly House Beautiful.

But Steve and I are surprisingly happy here. We made this radical change in order to give ourselves a year to write full-time. No mortgage. None of the responsibilities that come with owning a home—if the kitchen faucet comes loose, I call the landlord. And this historic town of 2,500 people on the banks of the Mississippi River has proved felicitous for us. We treat ourselves to the best rye bread we’ve ever eaten from the bakery around the corner. All summer, we bought vegetables at the weekly Thursday afternoon farmer’s market. The library is a block away, and I seem to be the only patron interested in reading the newest literary releases, as I have no trouble getting them. Post office, hardware store, feed store (our dog food outlet), book store, coffee shop, pizza parlor, and Chinese restaurant, all within a few blocks. The local grocery store isn’t far. We’ve made some friends—walking the dog several times a day provides opportunities for meeting people. And truly: there’s nothing in my life before this to compare to living right on the Mississippi River. From my office window in the back of the apartment, I look across the water, my view framed by the bridge to Wisconsin to the west and the National Eagle Center to the east. Several times a day, I walk the dog along a half-mile length of riverfront.

Walking along the river