When I was younger, I used to love flipping through my mom’s catalogs, of which there were many. I would look through the pile of mail and pull out each glossy booklet that looked promising—anything to do with books, toys, novelty items, hippie-themed gifts, or other amusing oddities. Until I was in my teens, I carefully left behind catalogs devoted to shoes, clothing, and beauty products. The remaining category—household items, including decorations, furniture, linens, and cookware—went untouched well into my 20's, not worth my attention even if I was completely bored and could find absolutely nothing else to occupy my time. So how did it happen that I finally find myself interested in these things? I not only browse home-oriented catalogs, but I peer into store windows where these items are on display, I peruse homewares websites, I go shopping with the single purpose of purchasing a set of sheets or matching pillows. What happened to me? How did I become…domesticated?
Oh, well, I suppose that this is somewhat inevitable as you grow up and live on your own, particularly if you are a woman—there’s that instinctual urge to build a nest and line it with nice, cozy materials. Or, in my case, with an ever-growing collection of bird art and kitchen implements. From the moment I began purchasing my own domestic items, it was clear that I had diverged from the path taken by my mother and her mother—both of whom have a very comfortable country style; my mother’s is accented with a suite of variously-sized antiques, while my grandmother’s is enhanced by the many pieces hand-built by my grandfather. Instead, I found myself drawn to the exotic—colors, textures, and patterns from Asia and the Middle East. Here, for instance, is the first major investment I ever made in an antique:
(My Chinese hatboxes. The first, on the bottom, was purchased at a wonderful antiques store called the Blue Crow, which I happened to stop at while driving along the peninsula of Virginia's western shore. The second also comes from Virginia--from the Old Chickahominy House in Williamsburg.)
It’s rather a happy coincidence, then, that my husband has spent his life traveling and acquiring things from abroad. He has also received a number of "multicultural" gifts from his diversely-origined friends and family. The few decorations that he already possessed prior to my arrival suited my tastes just fine--the Guatemalan clock, the series of African animal sculptures, the toucan statue, the set of Indian coasters. Even his collection of ultimate frisbee disks has an international flair, since they were acquired from competitions all over the world and sport (pun intended!) interesting and colorful designs. We were lucky, then, that we didn't have any moments of tension when it came time to join our two households; we kept everything my husband already had and then added my own things. As far as that "addition" process was concerned, I was given free permission to do what I liked. Given the general dearth décor when I arrived, that was quite a lot of freedom. I'm still a bit surprised by how few embellishments there were in the apartment despite the fact that my husband had lived here for three years prior to my arrival. Much of the furniture had been inherited, either from the apartment’s previous occupant or from people in his department who handed down pieces of furniture from one generation of academics to the next. This, for instance, is how my husband came by his couch, which was so disheveled that it had to be covered by a decorative sheet:
(The sheet failed to cover all of the places where you could see bits of metal and foam interior poking through the upholstery; it also couldn't disguise the ominous sounds that occasionally arose from the frame whenever you sat down.)
Unsurprisingly, the couch was high on my list of things to remedy. However, the first item on the list was cleanliness—not tidiness, which also needed some improvement—but sanitation and freshness, which seems to be something that many men, my husband among them, are not nearly as concerned with as we ladies are. Before I first came to visit, my husband had to pay a (female) friend to come clean the apartment so I wouldn’t be shocked by its appearance; there were actually places that he hadn’t dusted, vacuumed, swept, mopped, or scrubbed since he had moved in. To make this worse, there is always at least one window open in our apartment, and Falmouth produces this strange industrial dust that is thick and almost…furry. Its accumulation is quite noticeable even during the week that passes between my routine cleanings of the apartment, so you can only imagine how bad it was after nearly three years—especially in remote, inaccessible places like under the bed, on the baseboards, atop the armoires, on shelves, etc. As my mother would say, it was so thick in places that you could practically have planted corn in it. Another bane of my cleaning existence has always been the shower stall. The water here is full of minerals; within a day of cleaning the shower glass so that it is actually transparent (ooh la la!), white streaks are already collecting again. Even with the most toxic cleaning substance you can locate, de-opaquing the stall requires so much elbow grease that my muscles are sore the following day. Even I, in all my neat-freakiness, can only muster the energy to tackle this problem a couple times a year.
The next item on my list was organization. In the entire two-bedroom apartment, there is only one closet—one and a half, if you count the space under the water heater in its little closet by the bathroom. This worked fine for my husband, because he didn’t have much stuff. Even when I was just visiting, I routinely introduced many more things into the apartment—cooking implements, dishes, medicines, toiletries, reusable shopping bags, an iron and ironing board, etc. These all seem like normal items for any apartment to contain, but when there is no place to put them, they become quite problematic. There were also some issues associated with my husband’s general lack of neatness: All of his paperwork had accumulated in a single large pile on one of the kitchen counters; all of the extra parts and directions from home-assembled furniture had been crammed into one of the kitchen drawers; all of his recycling was piled in boxes and bags in the closet. When dealing with a packrat (yes, that’s right, I said it--he's a packrat), you have to pick your battles wisely. Thus, I only threw away the things it was absolutely imperative to get out of the apartment; the rest of them were organized by baskets, trays, boxes, and even my pride and joy, the closet caddy:
(I'm a little ashamed of how much I love this thing. To truly understand, you'd need to see a picture of the closet before it was organized by this nifty little piece of furniture. Unfortunately, I so detested looking in the closet during those messy days, I failed to document its previous condition.)
Luckily, my shipment from the US included two storage trunks, a chest of drawers, a bedside table, a desk, and several ornamental but also functional baskets and boxes; now all we need is a bookcase, and we will be more or less fully organized in here.
From the first moment that I stepped foot in this place, I had two nemeses: the couch and the laundry hamper. The couch I have already described, but words just cannot convey the awfulness of the laundry hamper. A large woven basket, it disintegrated while being carried from the store to the apartment; it then sat, in its unraveled state, in the corner of my husband’s bedroom, slumping more and more as it came more and more unwound from use. I first managed to relocate it to the guest room and at least get it out of my immediate sight; then I finally dismembered it and removed it from the apartment altogether. That was a great day. The couch took a bit longer. My parents’ wedding present to my husband and me was to buy us a new sofa, but the furniture company took a solid 9 weeks to deliver it after we’d placed the order. It’s more than a little frustrating to spend hundreds of dollars on something you don’t even get to enjoy until 2.5 months later. But, what a comfortable couch it is:
(And look how well it matches the rug, which matches the blanket along the back of the couch!)
Of course, couches require end tables, so we had to purchase those, and while we were at it we also bought a bedside table for our bedroom and a new bed for the guest bedroom (all of which was made possible by wedding present money from the other side of the family—do you see a theme here?). In the furniture assembly process that ensued, I learned an important lesson: Never let my husband put things together without supervision:
(Two of the three matching end tables that I put together. Beautiful.)
(The bedside table assembled by my husband. Notice the problem? The base of it is on upside-down, with the unfinished part rather than the finished part showing. *sigh* In his defense, the building instructions were pretty shoddy.)
With these basics taken care of, I could begin the much more fun process of decorating. For instance, I have purchased pillows that match not only our different-colored loveseat and sofa, but also each other; I have bought a pineapple “accent” table made by an artist friend; I’ve picked up a couple of locally-made paintings. I also brought many decorations with me from the US—in particular, several wall-hangings of various types, statues, sculptures, and picture frames. Unfortunately, another thing that is lacking in our apartment is surface space, so I’m not entirely sure where or how I am going to display all of these pieces I have painstakingly collected over the years. The pictures are a bit problematic because we lack the power tools needed to hang them appropriately, so we are either going to have to locate a friend with a drill or bite the bullet and purchase one of our own. I’ve managed to put a couple up already, using pre-existing nails and holes in the wall. It’s amazing how much warmer and less austere a room looks once it has color on the walls. The addition of plants and floor coverings also makes a huge difference; I added rugs early on, and we inherited a veritable greenhouse’s worth of plants from some friends a few months ago, not to mention the potted herbs that I have cultivated for the past year:
(My babies--basil, thyme, and oregano, with a random blade of grass thrown in for good measure.)
People who haven’t been over in a long time are always surprised when they walk in and see all the changes I’ve made. Take, for instance, the changes that have occurred just in the guest bedroom:
(When I arrived the bed was actually a futon, and the duvet was merely placed on top. Then we folded up the futon in order to make the room more spacious, ditched the dorm room-style duvet cover with the old one from our bedroom--I'd upgraded in there, of course. Next, we purchased a new bed. Then we added normal bedroom furniture, such as the bedside table and the trunk, some decorative baskets, and a new dresser. Finally, I purchased a new duvet cover that was a bit more mature. Note the towels on the bed runner--we have guests coming. And I'm not embarrassed to show them to their room.)
I do sometimes worry that I’m doing that clichéd makeover thing where women come in and feminize the bachelor pad; it makes me feel a bit overbearing. Then again, my husband really doesn’t care much about these domestic things, and I do give him opportunities to chime in (he was instrumental in choosing the couch, for instance, and for helping decide which rugs to put in our bedroom—he’s not bad at this stuff when forced into it). Also, I’m not one of those women who decorate in extremely girly ways. I once pet-sat for a family whose entire house was filled with pastels and floral prints, and I kept wondering how the husband felt coming home to such an oversized Barbie dollhouse; worse yet, how did he feel having male friends over to watch the game on Sunday?
I guess we all have our territories to reign over and defend. My husband, for instance, can still indulge in both messiness and dirtiness at his office, which is so mind-blowingly untidy that I feel anxious after standing in it for just a few minutes. He can also do whatever he likes in his car (but not when/if we trade it in for a car that is “ours”!). I’d also like to point out that, however strong my opinions about the apartment, and however forcefully I bend its appearance to my will, the same is not true of my husband’s own personal decorations. I have flooded his closet with many new items of clothing (mostly because he had so few to begin with), but I never complain about what he wears (well, I rarely complain), and I’m not trying to force him into any fashion mold.
In any case, he seems happy with all the changes, and that’s the important thing—that we both feel at home. Despite all the changes that have already been made, we still have more to go (as seems always to be the case—my parents are still making changes to their house after 27 years of living there). We need to purchase and assemble at least two bookcases to house all of my many tomes, we need to do something to organize the explosion of food (spices, in particular) in our pantry, and we need to install some sort of storage unit in our bathroom, just to name a few items on the list. And, of course, we have to clean the whole place once a week or so, to keep the Falmouth dust and fungus at bay. It’s hard work being an adult and living on your own. I sometimes miss the days when I could just focus on books and clothes, rather than worrying about whether things fit or match or are broken and need replacing. Still, it’s fun to create a place that really feels like home—one that exhibits your own tastes and interests and makes you feel safe and comfortable. After spending the last 11 years bouncing among various types of temporary housing, from dorm rooms to field housing to apartments rented in a sketchy part of town, it’s nice to be mistress of my own domain.