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Issue Date: May 2011

Open House

Marsha McGregor
I am a house voyeur. Not the creepy, poke-through-your-host's-medicine-cabinets variety. But definitely the wander-around-and-gaze-at-details kind.
Dwellings fascinate me. Upon entering, I try them on like a pair of jeans, turning this way and that and asking myself: Could this be home?

My obsession bloomed early. At 10, I accompanied my mother to the Hudson Home and Garden Tour. Each June for more than 40 years, she journeyed there for inspiration for her home. "I know just what we can do with our attic now!" she once announced. Padding through century-old structures softened by richly hued rugs and time-burnished wood, I learned to admire homes as my mother did: for their loving attention to detail, the creative touches that elevate them to spaces as personal as a thumbprint.

I visit real-estate open houses though I have no intention of moving, and I hear my mother's voice. That willowware would look wonderful over your mantel. Look at the clever storage under the stairs.

Early on, I was sure my dream home was a sprawling Victorian with secret passages and steep steps that I would faithfully renovate on weekends. Then I noticed that a friend in Ohio City, who was doing just that, lived with tarp-draped furniture and leaning stacks of drywall. For years.

When my oldest sister and her husband built a contemporary home on seven wooded acres in Sharon Center, the remote, shady beauty appealed to my nature-loving hermit side. But even mailing a letter involved a real outing.

On the flip side, the slant-floored 19th-century rental cottages in Lakeside lull me to reverie, especially when conversations drift like music from the screened porch next door. But if I'm honest, that close proximity seems charming because it only lasts a week.

Is there such a place as a perfect house?

For my husband and me, it came down to instinct.

As newlyweds in 1988, we toured open houses — the home voyeur's version of speed dating — for a full year. Our search finally ended with a small, pin-tidy 1952 Cape Cod in (ironically enough) Hudson.

Never mind the doll-size kitchen decorated in what we dubbed the Dick Van Dyke era or the skimpy, deer-chewed yews bordering the crooked front stoop or the low, sloping ceiling of the second-floor master bedroom. We fell in love with the place at first sight and promptly tied the knot.

Cape Cods have staying power. They allow me to imagine actual living going on behind their picture windows: coffee brewing in kitchens, easy chairs tipped back, the fragrance of steamy clouds billowing from basement dryer vents.

Maybe that's because I spent my first eight years of life in a neighborhood of post-World War II, cookie-cutter Capes in Canton, the backdrop for weenie roasts, kick the can and a snow fort shaped like a car.

When my husband and I enlarged our house about seven years ago, one contractor we interviewed recoiled his tape measure with a snap and pronounced, "We'll just raise the roof. Make it a two-story." Some primal resistance kicked in.

Although we ended up with an addition off the back and a wide front porch, our contractor's ingenious roof design retained the frame's original style. Our home is still a Cape Cod, sloped ceilings and all.

This deep attachment to place comes with a price.

It was wrenching for my mom to leave her sturdy three-story home on an acre and a half north of Canton, though increasing frailty had made it impossible for her and my father to manage it.

Their assisted living apartment is fresh and new and furnished with many of her favorite belongings. We have her gorgeous scrapbooks of all she and my father created together: the winding brick garden paths he laid by hand, the exuberant old roses cascading over the trellis by the barn, the drafty attic transformed into a luxuriantly cozy third-floor bedroom.

But for her, even three years after the move, the photos seem to hold none of the fragrance of blessed memory, only the thorn of loss.

Is it possible to love something fiercely and then relinquish it in peace?

Last year I surrendered to a decades-old yearning to explore some beautiful vintage Tudor-style apartments in Canton. I talked a hapless maintenance man into showing me the vacant end unit. My footsteps echoed on the gleaming wood floors. I stood in the broad slant of light that poured through leaded glass windows, trying on a new vision: my husband and I living there as empty nesters, shopping for a few potatoes and a quart of milk.

Like my mother, I collect images that chronicle my home's evolving history. I hope I am evolving, too, enough to learn that comfort, shelter and belonging are a form of grace untethered to any given space. That somehow, home can be carried wherever life takes me.

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