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