April in Virginia means daffodils, dogwoods and Historic Garden Week. Each year, several hundred of the most impressive homes and gardens around the state are open for public tours, thanks to the efforts of the Garden Club of Virginia. The event has become an annual Girls’ Day Out for my mom and me, and this year we joined the circuit in historic Fredericksburg.
Our tour was billed as “a walk from the 18th century to the 21st century” and it did not disappoint. Among the featured attractions were a grand manor built in the 1780’s by a former Virginia governor, an 1820’s farmhouse once occupied by the Union Army, and a lovely Victorian ingeniously updated for a young family. Each property demonstrated meticulous attention to historical detail, and we were truly awed by the intricate woodwork, beautiful heart-pine floors and spectacular gardens.
Later, when I reflected on all that we had seen, I realized that the most memorable aspects of each home were not architectural, but personal: the affectionate portraits that one artist homeowner had painted of her children; the garage that had been transformed into a luxurious guesthouse for the owner’s mother; the lacrosse goals standing ready at the base of a gorgeously terraced lawn; the striking floral display in the school colors of a family’s soon-to-be-graduating senior. I was reminded that the heart of a home is not the materials from which it is built, but the people who inhabit it.
It’s a notion that can be hard to keep in mind these days, with highly-addictive house porn available 24/7 on HGTV. If your family is anything like ours, you’ve probably watched your fair share of shows like Fixer Upper, Property Brothers and Love It or List It, and you know how easy it is to get carried away with stainless steel backsplashes, custom built-ins and something called shiplap. It’s aspirational viewing at its best – luring us in with warm earth tones and lots of natural light, inviting us to get comfortable in open concept floor plans with plenty of space for entertaining, and convincing us that we’re just one water feature away from the home of our dreams.
Once in a while, HGTV inspires a real-life project, and we’ve managed to complete a few of those in the 11 years we’ve lived in our home. Looking around, I’m sometimes astonished at what a big difference all those little updates have made. But even more noticeable than, say, new hardwood floors are the signs of how much our family has grown and changed during those years. The plastic playhouse in our backyard was long ago replaced by a soccer goal. My son’s toddler basketball hoop has gradually transformed into regulation size, as has his toy drum set. A foosball table now stands where a train table used to be. And there’s nary a safety gate, highchair or crib in sight.
Those hardwood floors? Well, they aren’t half as treasured as the memory of my husband installing them himself after his retirement from the Army. Our kitchen countertops aren’t nearly as precious as the innumerable family meals that have been prepared on them. And our freshly-paved driveway is nowhere near as stunning as the fact that my daughter is now old enough to park a car on it. Yikes.
Well-built older homes are often described as having “good bones.” It’s an apt expression, since a sturdy foundation, frame and roof are as essential to a house as a skeleton is to a body. But it’s not the reclaimed wood beams or the textured plaster walls or even – dare I say – the rustic charm of shiplap that really brings a house to life. It’s the people within it – the true heart of a home.