What is a home? Over the past four decades I’ve had a few. Each one taught me something different, and each has shaped the way I approach a house when I enter it.
The first 16 years of my life were spent in a butter-yellow bungalow on the North Shore of Long Island, New York. Wild tangled flower gardens lined the backyard and sides of the house and a huge oak tree shaded the front lawn. A caddy-corner china hutch in the dining room provided the perfect space to hide behind in games of hide and seek with exasperated babysitters. The galley kitchen was unbelievably cramped for a family of four to sit down to dinner, but my dad made a table out of a long narrow strip of butcher block and mounted it on a pedestal with casters, so it could be pressed up against the wall when we weren’t using it.
It taught me that home should be cozy. Home was the place that nurtured childhood imagination with no thought to the constraints of space or the aesthetics of decor. Home was a big oak tree and a sunflower printed bedspread.
Uprooted in high school, my next home was a sprawling white Victorian house in a small beach town perched up on a cliff. My dad had been raised there, and after my grandfather died suddenly, my family moved in.
My mom painted the house pink. I watched my dad single-handedly gut bathrooms lined with powder blue tile and white formica cabinets embossed with blue Grecian ladies holding urns. I became my dad’s assistant, handing him the screwdriver when he needed to remove a light fixture. I watched my mom carefully stencil a cloud scene with fat cherubs on our recessed dining room ceiling. A Long Island Sistine Chapel complete with a ring of gold leafed molding around the edges.
For all its surface beauty, there was lots of arguing in that house. It taught me home could become a divisive place if you gave the physical space too much attention and neglected tending to the people who lived in it. But it also taught me that hard physical work and a vision could transform a space into something beautiful. Transformation was an incredible thing, and every space was capable of it with the right planning and tools.
There were a string of apartments in college and in the years after. Tapestries and whiteboards. Posters and prints. Second-hand dressers and kitchen tables that wobbled no matter what you stuck under the legs.
I met my husband. Home meant something new. It wasn’t something created by someone else, it was something we were creating together. I’d walk from room to room in all the different places we’ve lived and stand, looking, imagining. Feeling what the space wanted. Where the light came in. How the furniture would sit against the walls, or what colors might feel good given the use of the space and the amount of light that came in from the windows.
Home now is a place where my kids run around pulling pillows off the couch after I’ve fluffed them. They spill milk on the table, it falls to the floor I’ve just mopped. Baskets of toys designed to control the mess get dumped out on the rug, as they should be. Stray crayons find their way under couches and beds, revealed by the cat who paws them out all times of the day and night, thinking they might be prey.
When we moved into our current house two years ago, all the walls were the same shade of white. Wall-to-wall carpeting padded the basement floor. But the bones were good. I could see the potential, thanks to the homes I’ve lived in and the skills my parents taught me.
Our living room is now a deep shade of inky black. Painting that first swath of color felt scary, like desecrating some pure monument to simplicity. But once I got going, I knew the change was right. I could feel it in the way an involuntary smile filled my face when I stepped back and saw the deep richness of black against the warm wood floors.
We ripped out the carpet in the basement and stained the concrete. Not only is it easier to clean, but it feels more open, as if we’d given the foundation of our house permission to breathe.
I splurged on the brightly patterned Orla Kiely curtains I’d wanted for years. We try to invest in pieces of art when we can.
My feelings about home have evolved to a current realization that home is less about the “stuff” in a house, and more about taking care of the space itself. Give attention first to walls and floors, using color and area rugs. Notice where you put the furniture and how it feels in the space. Put up window treatments that set the tone for a room and take into account the light allowed in and how it changes depending on the time of day. Use built-in storage spaces to control chaos and items we really don’t need out all the time.
Caring for these things first provide the base for a living space.