Childhood was rooms and doors, gaping lace in open windows, potted parsley in yellow kitchens, splintered floorboards, buckled carpets, the bug-zapper sound that the basement light made when your father pulled the string, and then that tube of violet light abuzz over his box of tools. Childhood was place as much as it was people, geometry as much as conversation, material as much as mood.

There’s the evidence of it in photographs. There are the neighborhoods to which we return, then circle. And, sometimes, there are the houses themselves—still standing. If we knock, and the door opens, we are rushed with a confusion of past and present. I think of George Hodgman, in his memoir Bettyville, returning to Missouri as the adult child of a mother in need of care and company:

On the spare bed, there is a quilt with stars and crescent moons, figures of girls and boys joining hands along the borders, and the embroidered signatures of long-gone farm women, including my great-aunt Mabel’s. I am installed here, along with the Christmas wrappings, the desk of Betty’s uncle Oscar, and the bed I slept in with my grandmother as a boy, listening to Mammy’s snores and the sound of the furnace settled into service.

Installed in the moment. Awash with history.

We have been shaped by the houses and the land of our past. We remember, through them, what we have gained and what we have lost, what we were offered and what we were denied, what we have decided about transience, permanence, and most things in between. As memoir writers we must ultimately wrestle with our beliefs about home. We need to answer questions: Is home an act of creation? Is home where we know and are known? Is home where we find ease? Is home where we tell the truth or keep our secrets? Is home what we must finally leave?

What, in the end, is home? And how do we write it?

Simply quantifying the architectural facts of our childhood houses—stone, brick, siding; color of doors and arrangement of windows; tones and hues; furnishings; the arrangement of mail slots or mailboxes; monthly rent or purchase price—will not, alone, advance our plots. We must find within those facts our stories, our metaphors, our truths, our most elemental memories. What follows is a handful of starting places, illustrated by the words of some extraordinary writers.


It’s one thing to take a measuring tape to a set of architectural blueprints and announce a series of dimensions. It’s quite another to think and write of a house proportionately. What was small and what was large, and in relationship to what, precisely?

Think of the work Sandra Cisneros does in The House on Mango Street, a house that is, she tells us, “small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small you’d think they were holding their breath.” The language is simple. The effect is enormous. The windows are holding their breath and so are we. We feel the impact of this claustrophobic place on a girl with expansive dreams.

If we were to think of our childhood houses in terms of proportions—how the sizes of things shaped our relationship to them and to ourselves—what would happen to our stories? How might we understand, and write them, better?

Color and Shine

In Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir-in-verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, a family’s existence is gracefully summoned by measures of color and shine. We don’t just see this world of the author’s youth. We understand how a family lives—what has been deemed important (that healthy plant, those polished shoes) and what has not (that neglected swing):

A front porch swing thirsty for oil.
A pot of azaleas blooming.
A pine tree.
Red dirt wafting up
around my mother’s newly polished shoes.

Inspired by Woodson, we might make a list of the colors associated with our childhood home—and what those colors suggested. We might name the things that shined, and why it mattered that they did. We might write the story that emerges.

Function or Dysfunction

“The house was by now functional only in one room, the living room,” writes Bruce Springsteen in his memoir, Born to Run. “The rest of the house, abandoned and draped off, was falling down, with one wintry and windblown bathroom, the only place to relieve yourself, and no functioning bath.”

This is no note to would-be repairmen. Nor is it a retrospectively lodged complaint. Springsteen remembers his childhood circumstance with compassion for those who raised him as well as compassion for himself, this boy who navigated a physically broken place with a unifying sense of family.

What happens when we reckon with all the broken things in our childhood houses, then work to remember that one time—those many times?—when what was physically broken was overcome by a gesture or insistent love? How would such story making deepen our own understanding of the self that was shaped by the house, the house that became an actual home?


Many of us look back on our childhood homes with our eyes. Photographs orient us, after all. Those blueprints, if we have them.

But story lives equally within the province of sound—the way the roof whistled when the wind blew, the inherent creak of the fifth stair, the front-door squeal, the hush-swirl of the water draining from the tub. “My aunt’s bedroom was large, industrial, and cold…,” Mary Gordon writes in “My Grandmother’s House.” And then she gives that house a new dimension: “Each footfall, even your own, sounded ominous in your ears.”

That word ominous is signaling a story. A story set into motion by a sound.

What echoed, literally, in our childhood homes? What echoes now, as we write our way back to the children we were, eyes closed in the dark, listening? How might the echoes become metaphors, or meaning?

Stage Sets

Our childhood houses offered, at their most basic, shelter. But they also served as round-the-clock stage sets, as a kind of theater in which we were both actor and audience. In All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf, Katharine Smyth provides a perfect illustration of what can happen when we establish (with poetics) the physical facts of a home, and then set a story into motion:

We devoted our weekends that winter to supervising the renovation. A beastly wind leapt off the basin, slipping through cracks and ripping at the plastic sheets that now stood in for windows altogether. The house then was a skeleton; from the water, it looked like an architectural cross section. We wore winter coats indoors. I spent my time collecting the sawdust that drifted like snow into the corners of rooms—I liked how light and downy and dry it was—and when, come spring, the house was finally finished, I mixed this sawdust with glue, molded it in the shape of a heart, and baked it in the oven.

This might be our ambition, then: To write the physical places that shaped us with such evocative specificity that those who read our pages will feel not just the wind blowing through but the lives themselves—the gathering, the yearning, the inevitably inadequate but elementally human attempts at shaping and keeping.

Our childhood houses were where we learned proportion and relationship, color and shine, function and dysfunction, echo. Our childhood houses were our theaters in the round. Our privilege, and our challenge, is to write them, to convert the house into a home.

Beth Kephart is the award-winning writer of more than thirty books in multiple genres, an award-winning teacher of memoir at the University of Pennsylvania, co-founder of Juncture Workshops, and a widely published essayist. Her memoir in essays, Wife | Daughter | Self was published by Forest Avenue Press in March 2021.