In two weeks, my parents will move to Vermont from the town in Northern Virginia where I grew up, their home for 37 years.
More on that later; for today all you need to know is their new front door in Vermont needs work. Everyone – the real estate agent, the sellers, the contractors they consulted – agreed that the door should be repainted or replaced, and that the doorstep needs to be repaired.
My parents told me about the front door as they were listing all of the work to be done on their new Vermont house, which isn’t really “new” at all; it’s a 1928 beauty that requires the kind of upkeep you’d expect of an 86-year-0ld house. But when they mentioned the front door, I said, “Don’t worry too much about that; nobody’s going to be coming through your front door, anyway.”
They stared at me for a beat, then said, “That’s just what everyone else told us!”
After moving to Vermont, I learned quickly that most Vermont front doors – particularly those of older, farmhouse-style homes -- are optical illusions, formalities at best. Their very existence is just aesthetic: to give the house some symmetry, or to make clear which side is the front. Whatever their purpose, it’s certainly not to serve as an entrance. At least not after the first visit.
When we began making friends in our town and were invited over to their homes, we kept finding ourselves in similar situations: We’d pull up to our friend’s house, exit the car, and knock on the front door. After a couple of minutes, the door would open to reveal our friend’s confused face. “Oh!” they’d say, “You can come in through that door.” Then they’d point to a door off to the side of the house, the door that served as the real entrance.
I’m certain that the idea of using a side door as the de facto entrance isn’t unique to Vermont; at the very least, this setup is likely practiced throughout the New England states, and possibly elsewhere. But having lived previously in New York City (where you were lucky to have one front door leading into your closet-sized apartment) and the San Francisco Bay Area (where space is at a premium and most houses are straightforward bungalow or craftsman styles), it was new to us.
There’s a very practical reason why most Vermont homeowners use a side door as the primary entrance: Usually, this door opens directly into the mudroom. And in Vermont, the mudroom bears no resemblance to the tidy, pristine storage spaces featured in Pottery Barn catalogues; Vermont mudrooms are used so often and so violently that the word “mudroom” here is almost a verb. Given what your guests have to walk in just to get through the dooryard (a term I’ve learned since moving to Vermont), you want them to enter via the mudroom.
The Vermont mudroom is covered in actual mud for several months of the year, followed by sandy flip-flops, wet towels, bits of grass and leaves (green), bits of grass and leaves (brown), wet rain boots, wet snow boots, soggy gloves/hats/snowpants, skis, snowshoes, chunks of slush mixed with road salt --- and back to mud. Multiply exponentially by every child and pet, and you get the idea.
I have a great appreciation of the side entrance, because unfortunately our own house was constructed without one. (What can I say? The original owners were from Texas). Instead, our house features a more suburban-style design, in which the mudroom is accessed via a door from the attached garage. This makes it easy for our family to enter directly into the mudroom, but would force our guests to come through the open garage door and squeeze past our car.
Maybe that’s not a problem in Texas, but here it means that our guests end up coming through our front door, cramming into our front entryway, chucking their boots on a miniscule boot tray and stuffing their coats into the tiny closet. And our front hallway ends up covered with dirt, pebbles, slush puddles, and ash. (My husband likes to use the ash from our woodstove to “sand” the front walkway and driveway. What can I say? He’s from California).
That’s okay; what’s a little slush and ash between friends? But the worst thing about always having to make our friends come through the front door is the false sense of formality it imposes. Instead of tossing their coats onto pegs and flowing from the mudroom into the heart of our house, our friends always have to let us take their coats and usher them through the living room.
So the impractical reason – the heart reason -- for using the side door is that it’s a symbol of intimacy. Deliverymen and solicitors may always knock on the front door, but once you’ve been directed to the side door and allowed to see the mudroom, you know you’re a friend.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone puppy — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.