Out and About (Sort of: What’s In A House? By Howard Freedlander

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After spending another wonderful Thanksgiving week in a big, old house in Rehoboth Beach, DE, surrounded by family, I wondered: what makes this structure different from any other?

I’m likely neither the first nor the last person, musing philosophically, who has asked this question. It prompts reflection about “community,” a group of people, related or not, who inhabit a house and give it life and personality.

Rehoboth Beach House

A house large enough to accommodate comfortably 10 people and provide a venue for mostly harmonious fellowship over several years becomes a special place. It’s not merely a cedar-shingled building with a cedar-walled interior; it’s a home containing wonderful memories and hosting additional good cheer and warm connections—over four generations.

Maybe it’s my age, but I’ve learned to appreciate a place, or places that bring consistent happiness.

For the most part, family members, ranging in age from five to 73, carry pleasant moods with them. They linger only briefly in crankiness or frustration. We always have to factor in human nature.

The ocean sits 200 feet away. It projects calm and peace, particularly in late November. Geese fly over honking all the way. Crowds of people are four months in the past. Thank goodness.

With the house as an anchor, children, parents and grandparents seem driven to avoid drama and celebrate togetherness. It takes effort, but it’s worth it.

Bear with me as I now take a leap of faith.

I believe too in the soothing, introspective space of a house of worship. For me, it’s a safe place to pray and connect with non-family members. It yields peace and self-awakening. Ill feelings disappear at the kneelers. Prayer dominates.

While I’ve heard Episcopal priests at Christ Church, Easton declare that those churches are just structures—that a prayerful venue can be anywhere—they also say it promotes community, enabling parishioners to support and befriend each other. For me, it’s a vessel for me to reach out to a higher power to seek intervention for those ailing or grieving and to express thanks for health, happiness and wisdom in our fragile, fractious world.

My prayers may be too ambitious.

My point is that bricks-and-mortar projects do matter. They do encourage, if not expedite an enduring sense of humanity, marked hopefully by unselfish relationships.

Just recently, as I listened on NPR to a woman whose house somehow escaped the devastation wrought by the horrendous Camp Fire in Paradise, CA, I learned about the intrinsic value of community. While this woman kept her house, she lost all of her neighbors; their homes were destroyed. She understandably wondered and worried about the loss of place; it had disappeared, at least for the present.

What makes a house become a home? The obvious answer is the presence of people. More sublimely, it means relationships. Hopefully understanding ones.

The big, old house in Rehoboth is more than a monument to cedar walls and shingles, a splendid fireplace and a superb view of the Atlantic Ocean.

To our family, it connotes closeness, fueled by love, humor, empathy, noisy grandchildren and plentiful food. Stories of family parties abound. My in-laws figure prominently.

Christ Church and Emmanuel Church in Chestertown are more than places of worship defined by Episcopal priests and ages-old liturgy and practice. It encompasses parishioners drawn not only by a shared religion but a sincere compassion for each other. I see it continually.

And then when I view the destruction by a raging fire in Paradise, CA, I see a town that is no more. It’s questionable whether former homeowners will return to an area where a sense of being vanished quickly in the wake of an unforgiving fire.

Is a burnt out town, resembling the worst of a war zone, recoverable? Is there sufficient human will to recreate a place special to its residents? It’s happened before throughout the world. I think about parts of New Orleans. I think about cities destroyed in recent years in Syria, or the French city of St. Lo during World War II.

Were I standing at a pulpit—or merely occupying this Spy space—I now would tout the constant goodness and grace of community defined by family or friends or neighbors, or faraway people and non-profits learning about terrible devastation. But I won’t do that.

It happens naturally.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

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