I remember the reproduction of Albrecht Durer’s self-portrait leaned against the wall of our apartment in Rota, Spain when my mom was in the Navy. I’d thought it strange we had all these pictures of ourselves yet to be developed; the ones that had been processed had been stowed away in shoeboxes in closets. We had portraits of ancestors in scrapbooks, but this guy was in a large, gold-painted frame. Even at six, I thought, What is so great about this guy? I suppose that’s my earliest memory of being aware of the aesthetics of my surroundings.
And that’s how it always was with my parents.
Every place we ever lived in came across as a temporary place to crash. I remember going to friends’ houses and thinking how wonderful it was to be in a home where the décor was intentional, rather than nonexistent or confused. I can’t say I ever remember setting the table or making the bed. I never even had chores.
Junk mail would stack up, and trash would be overflowing. Laundry would pile up in a basket, and rather than be folded or put on hangers, we’d dig out our wrinkled clothes and toss them in the dryer for a few minutes before putting them on. Our clean concrete dishes would stay in the dishwasher till we used them, only to collect in the sink till the next cycle, sometimes scraped, rarely rinsed.
At the Booker house, the bed sheets were always mismatched, because Dad was all about slopping it up to get it done, and Mom hated cooking housework, or anything remotely domestic. My parents kept every plastic cup they got from fast food places, and Dad’s lists and statistics projects would fill up binders and gather dust, sometimes in a cardboard box in the bathroom. The kitchen table would always be cluttered, so we’d just eat in front of the television because there was just nowhere to put anything.
So our house, even though it was of average size, always felt small. Ironically, I never felt I had enough because we had too much.
This lack of pride in the home had a profound effect on me. I rarely invited my friends over, so I often didn’t get invites. I was ashamed of the house I lived in, and so when I married and rented a little cottage house, I would purge it monthly. Clutter, for me, equaled chaos.
My husband never understood why it was so important to hang pictures in a timely manner, but empty walls, for me, represented the kind of home I was trying to get away from. Negative wall space combined with no floor, table, or counterspace—that was my childhood home.
Family photographs, for me, have always been the hallmark of a happy, healthy home. A lack of such gives a house the vibe of being staged for resale, and a lack of tidiness and cleanliness lends the impression that the occupants aren’t invested in themselves.
I despite the saying, “Messy House, Happy Kids.” A home is meant to be lived in and cleaned up afterward. There’s a George Foreman grill, coated with hamburger grease, that has been sitting for months. My parents even turned me off ever owning a dog, because dog hair would mat up everywhere, and they would often poop on the carpet. I was mortified the day a friend did come over (she insisted) and there was a giant log right as we walked in. Though I didn’t hone any house cleaning habits as a child, I am becoming, through self-imposed discipline (and the desire to tamp down my husband’s superiority complex concerning the thing that’s next to godliness), what I was not brought up to be.
As for my dream house, my ideal design was a cross between my grandparents’ immaculate home in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, and a combination of Lucy Ricardo’s three homes featured in I Love Lucy. It was nostalgia and childhood memories, rolled into one.
Grandpa and Grandma Booker’s house was the kind of home that felt right and good—the kind of place I could imagine living in myself. In my own way, I’ve tried to recreate that feeling. I have my grandmother’s vintage love seat that smells like wood smoke so that when I press my nose into it, it brings me back to when I was nine years old and life wasn’t so complicated. I also have her Bavarian china hutch, which I like to say adds gravitas. The copper Jell-O molds that hung in her kitchen now hang in mine, near my mint-green, I Love Lucy retro clock. As a girl, I imagined these molds as fancy tables in some nightclub in the forties. I know I like certain things only because they liked them first (such as Wedgwood blue china plates). Had I inherited her home, I wouldn’t have changed anything, for everything had a memory attached to it.
I’ve often found myself looking for the same kind of wallpaper Grandma Booker had in her kitchen, even though it’s quite dated. I’ve never found it, and I realize I cannot recreate the past, any more than I can predict the future.
The wall of our hallway is set up like a family tree and over the loveseat is a kitschy picture of a tree that, depending on where you’re standing, changes seasons. It makes me think of something my grandmother would have had. The rest of the frames showcase my own photography because I’m a big believer that what’s on your walls should mean something to you.
My daughter’s room will be a tribute to Minnie Mouse, for she loves all things, Minnie. I want my home to feel like a safe space, even as my parents’ house felt so transient.
Sometimes, at twilight, I stand outside on our screened-in patio where I do my algebra homework, the amber glow of the lights inside illuminating the room while I watch my husband and daughter play on the carpet. Even as my grandmother had many strategically-placed knickknacks, I’ve grown more minimalist over time. To me, DVDs are clutter, but books are décor; I also don’t care for the television to be the focal point of the room. It encourages everyone collectively looking at a screen instead of at each other. I’ve also realized that not every space on the wall needs to be filled. It’s all about the harmonization of positive and negative space working together to create balance.
With my parents, there was too much positive space on surfaces and too much negative on the walls.
Décor isn’t just about the way a house looks, but the way it smells and the way it feels. It’s the sum of all the parts adding up to something that feels like home.