House of Ill-Rebuke

by

Joshua G. Adair

Good God! To have a room of one’s own with a real fire and books and tea and company, and no dinner bells and distractions, and a little time for doing something! It’s a wonderful vision and surely worth some risks.

—Virginia Woolf
A Room of One's Own

My mother, directly and indirectly, taught me all I know about home. As the site of her becoming, as well as her (partial) undoing, I have always known it to be a fraught space, but one that ultimately performs a profound role in our lives. While other kids were daydreaming about trucks and motorcycles or having adventures on their bicycles, I was fantasizing about old houses and the antiques with which I would fill them. Though we were poor and mom was harried by a burden of domestic duties more reminiscent of her mother’s in the 1940s—despite it being the 1980s—she labored endlessly to create a warm, inviting space for us all. Home mattered tremendously to her—as it still does—and she found a kindred spirit in her off-kilter middle child who liked to paint woodwork and rearrange furniture long before finishing grade school. I spent the hours after school watching reruns of The Beverley Hillbillies and The Big Valley, not because I liked the story lines or the characters, but because I lusted after the houses and furnishings they featured. Like my maternal grandmother, I dreamed of owning a Gone with the Wind-style oil lamp and fine draperies hung on rings that I could draw closed each evening.

By any measure, I was unusual. I never fit in anywhere, except the home that mom created. Even that refuge was not entirely safe because my older brother did not love the idea of a queer sibling and my father neatly typified the distant dad. Mom was keenly aware of these difficulties and nurtured my interests despite the conflicts they caused; she was also attuned to her own disadvantages as a woman married to a man-child. While my father always worked very hard to support us financially, that was his sole contribution as a father and husband. He elected to work fourteen hour days rather than return home and share duties; he expected my mother to care for him as she did her own children. This meant that she laid out his clothes; prepared and served his meals; managed all aspects of the household. She had the audacity to demand a vacation after twenty-one years of marriage and fifteen of motherhood. Her first morning away dad came scrambling after me demanding to know where mom kept his underwear. He was that helpless. In the space that I adored because it meant safety, creativity, and beauty, I discovered early on that mom was being exploited and that she and my father’s marriage exemplified the kind of arrangement my professors would later decry.

I faced a considerable struggle when I was forced to confront my mentors’—from undergrad through doctoral studies—deep disdain for all things domestic. While I shared their loathing of arrangements like my parents’, I did not (and do not) see why the solace of home must be destroyed to achieve equality. I never considered the domestic to be a “separate sphere” as the Victorians might have had us believe, nor did I conceive of it as an apolitical or disenfranchised space. I know that it can be; I also know that it historically has been. For some, perhaps even many, it is the site of oppression and grave unfairness. I do not wish to discount those realities, but I also am choosing not to wade into those important issues too deeply here. Rather, I want to focus upon the ways that home, for me and many of the women in my family, functions as a space of resistance, as a sanctuary designed to foster resilience and respite. After all I could easily cite the workplace as a similarly troublesome space with all its sexism, homophobia, racism, and other forms of discrimination, violence, and inequity, but it never seems to receive the same vitriol as houses and the comfort that those of us who seek asylum there enjoy.

Before I left home at eighteen, my school life was incredibly difficult. Simply put, it was not safe to be me: I was a queer kid growing up among the Illinois cornfields and boys whose primary succor in life derived from playing football and attempting to eradicate me. I frequently became the target of physical and verbal violence and without the home my mother created, I doubt I would have survived. During my college years, things worsened for me as a student living in a dormitory, and it did not take long for me to create a cocoon in my room where I could retreat from a world that largely despised my difference. My mother aided and abetted me in this physical—though not emotional or intellectual—retreat however she could. Though she was not queer, she felt alienated from the world around her and as a result she insisted upon living in a space of her own design that she found sustaining and nurturing because, through carefully sustained curation and renovation, it cleverly reflected her own aesthetic and sense of comfort. Neither of us could control how the world reacted to us, but we held dominion over the spaces in which we spent the bulk of our time. As I became more conscious of the unfairness of the labor demands of our household, I also endeavored to lessen that burden and to encourage her to tell my dad to fuck off—and sometimes she did. Though she still has not reached the level of liberation that I would wish for her, she wields power and enjoys a strong sense of satisfaction with the life she has created for herself in that house.

Staking claim to a space and then designing it to reflect one’s own sensibilities, desires, and ethics is always a political act; the physical remove of home from the public arena does not diminish its impact as an agent of protest. Home, to those to whom it matters, becomes a model of life well-lived and a demand for legitimacy as well as the right to configure one’s own existence—or at least that is how I see it. Mom might offer a slightly less political read of the situation, but she would also tell you that her home is the child upon which she has lavished the most attention. I adopted that model and I have extended it as an adult who most frequently invites the world into our home rather than rushing out to meet it. Though it is technically private, it frequently performs as a public space, both because of its nearness to the boulevard upon which we live and its plethora of windows, but also because we are an active, engaged queer couple who frequently rely upon it to serve as the stage for our lives. Though I often mimic Martha Stewart—by choice, not obligation—I remain cognizant of the gender-inflected power differentials at play when I home-make versus when my mother does; I am also keenly aware of my intentional choosing of this role to exert power and influence in the spheres I inhabit.

Though I have always been some version of this person during my adulthood, my home-centeredness has magnified over the last few years. My partner and I bought our 1925 Craftsman, which had been a long-term college rental, in 2015, when the term “fixer-upper” barely described it. It sits on a fashionable street in our smallish university town, but on one of its least stylish blocks; it sported a reputation for serving as a receptacle for college students’ post-party puke—the residue of which I scrubbed off the walls to repaint. From the right angle, we are those gentrifying, decorating, gardening, stereotypical queers: shortly after the family who sold us the property grasped the extent or our renovation, they began inquiring if our “similar” friends might enjoy taking on other transformations in the neighboring properties, which they also intended to sell. Their queries made us laugh at the privilege of a family who has owned this block they built for nearly a century, dreaming about an army of our gay brethren descending to manifest grandiose House Beautiful masturbatory fantasies while miraculously vanquishing any sense of guilt at selling their heritage to finance swankier lives in tonier Nashville and Atlanta. Alas, we told them, there are not any more of us lurking around, at least not that we know of.

Our first summer in the house, we labored endlessly refinishing hardwood floors; gutting and restoring the kitchen and bathrooms; painting walls and ceilings; even installing gas lamps on the boulevard. As the construction detritus amassed, so did the foot and vehicle traffic increase. Word spread quickly that we intended to live in—not rent—the spacious house. People would creep by to catch a glimpse of the non pareil queers and their raucous renovation, as though we were a mythical species recently discovered and apt to go extinct at any moment. As fervent Bible-belters, they vacillated over whether their holy aspirations or their lust for luxurious living should figure more prominently in their plans for salvation and décor appeared to tip the scale. They had fawned for years over those glamorous, inspiring HGTV reveals, but never imagined that they happened in reality, replete with two fit, well-dressed— not to mention friendly—queers who blithely acquiesced to their surveillance. For my part, I wanted to be studied in this way; I wanted them to understand that ours is a house of ill-rebuke; I wanted it to stand as ponderous, inviting evidence that we are not powerless or weak, nor are we the monsters we are so frequently made out to be. I hoped, in some measure not necessarily small, that they would feel chastised for having thought ill of our kind in the first place.

When the house was done, we invited them in. We participated in the annual Women’s Club Tour of Homes; we threw parties for hordes of people; we conversed with passing strangers; we even delivered cookies at Christmas to elderly neighbors. When the Traditionalist Worker Party and the KKK leafleted our lawn and porch, we put out a “No Hate” sign and kept on mingling. When they returned, we turned our porch into a pick-up point for the signs. A year after moving in, the Women’s Club called to inform us we had won “Yard of the Month,” and the sheepish caller inquired of my partner if we really wanted both our names listed in the paper as a couple, and he said “of course,” intentionally deaf to her anxiety and specious sense of decorum. We have politicized our house and the lives we live in our rural, conservative university town simply by insisting we have the right to that life and declaring as much through our openness. Our house has become a flashpoint attraction for many: we may embody some stereotypes, however we entered this area not as novelties but as community-minded individuals dedicated to rendering our difference powerful but inviting. We make no claim to be like everyone else, because we are not. There is no reason we should be; we design our lives and the space we live in to suit ourselves and hope that the counternarrative we fashion offers our community a sense of possibility for belonging that does not demand conformity.

Despite the oft-repeated assertion to the contrary, home is political—or at least it can be if you create it in that fashion. I learned about the politics of homemaking by watching my parents’ unbalanced relationship; its inherent unfairness taught me that it is the relationships we form and foster in our homes that can turn it into a space that feels like a trap or a prison. The space itself—the “room of one’s own” as Woolf would have it—is not the problem. A fair distribution of labor and a keen eye for power dynamics and keeping them in balance is necessary in all arenas of our lives and each of us must negotiate the boundaries and bylaws that keep us on an even keel. For me and many others I suspect, the idea of home and the refuge and respite it affords figures most prominently in our ability to survive, nay flourish, in a world hostile to our existence and often indifferent to our destruction. Christopher Reed, in his analysis of domesticity as a “heroic ideal” among the members of the Bloomsbury group, says it best, I think: “The persistence of an anti-domestic critical standard is clear […] as the cozy and decorated are equated with the superficial and unimportant, the homey is necessarily insipid, and modernism is seen as incompatible with sociability. It is hard work breaking through this ideology, which through constant reassertion has come to seem self-evident” (5). That self-evident-ness, I believe, must be dismantled. We need to reassess this dismissal and demonization of the domestic and work toward grasping that, at least for those of us living closer to the margins, sometimes home is the only place we have power and peace.

References

Reed, Christopher. 2004. Bloomsbury Rooms: Modernism, Subculture, and Domesticity. New Haven: Yale University Press.

 


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