The Romantic Life, The Romantic Mom--Aspects of the Homey Life
Once upon a time there was a wood-mouse,
and her name was Mrs. Tittlemouse.
She lived in a bank under a hedge. Mrs. Tittlemouse was a most terribly tidy particular little mouse always sweeping and dusting the soft sandy floors. Sometimes a beetle lost its way in the passages.
“Shuh! Shuh! Little dirty feet!” said Mrs. Tittlemouse, clattering her dust-pan.
The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse by Beatrix Potter
One of the things I truly loved before having children was always having my home just so. And by “just so” I mean JUST SO. I had read numerous books that approached any subject pertaining to the genteel or on “gracious living” that I could get my hands on. All my cabinets, drawers, and closets were immaculately organized. “A place for everything and everything in its place” was taken to the extreme. I loved finding lovely items or presentation even for the most mundane—right down to matches kept in a crystal sugar bowl on the fireplace mantle If it wasn’t already wonderfully packaged, I’d find a new way to package it. My motto was to never wake up to a dirty house and I lived by those words—even if it meant doing dishes at 2:00 in the morning.
Obviously those days are long gone and I’ve certainly had to relax my standards. Nothing relaxes standards more than becoming a parent. Of course, insane standards should be relaxed, too. Rigidity in the face of new priorities and new challenges doesn’t bode well for a happy, relaxed home life or family life. As Alexandra Stoddard states in her book, Creating a Beautiful Home:
Perfection, in the final analysis, halts the creative process. It is the enemy of spontaneity and serendipity, surely two of the most glorious gifts of life. In my experience working all over the United States, I’ve found there is too much emphasis on nit-picking neatness, on creating rooms that are still lifes. But where is the living taking place? Living well is an earthy business. We may celebrate the daily moments of life when we throw an extra log on a roaring fire, light a scented candle,…but the soot, the scratches, the crumbs, the ring on the table, the mess on the floor, the ink on the chintz, the wrinkles, the work—these are all part of the romance of everyday living. Perfection, on the other hand, chills the mystery and leaves us frozen in space. Perfectionists miss it all.
Yet somewhere buried in the far recesses of my mind I remembered what it was like to open a drawer and be able to find a pair of scissors or a pen that actually worked. And I did miss some of the ambiance I used to create like lit candles in the evening, flower arrangements scattered about, or a beautifully set table with soft music playing. It’s not that we never did those things anymore, but that ambiance increasingly became replaced with baby toys, baby videos and lots of plastic. Now don’t get me wrong. We still have plenty of that stuff around—tons of it. And I’m all for disposable stuff, too. I try to be environmentally conscious, but we’ve used many a paper plate and plastic spoon. Believe me, when you’re eight months pregnant and have three toddlers running around, doing yet another sink full of dishes is not a top priority.
Eventually, though, I began to consider the lack of some elegance and sophistication around our house. I didn’t want a child to get burned or have a crystal vase come crashing down so I began to ponder some ways I might introduce some of these adult “niceties” back into my life. Now if you haven’t already begun the process of training your child(ren) then please refer to the section on child training and safety. What I’m presenting here is for children who already have a general appreciation for the word “no.” To begin with, I wanted my children to understand the difference between glass or ceramic and plastic. So I found some cheap colorful plates and began serving their meals on these ceramic plates. I also started using some small juice glasses for breakfast. Of course the glasses were the first to go careening off the table so we got our first lesson on broken glass (i.e. we don’t touch the pieces of glass, we “freeze” until mommy gets the mess cleaned up, we wait for mommy to find all the little pieces, etc.). Usually this makes quite an impression the first time—especially if mommy hams it up a bit. Now we understand that glass breaks so we have to be extra, special careful with glass things.
Next I wanted to find something that wasn’t too dear but looked more like a “mommy type” decoration and could represent “this is not a toy—this is mommy’s pretty decoration.” I settled on a wooden bowl and filled it with pot pourri. The pot pourri is perfect because they really want to get their hands in it. After a few days of intense curiosity and numerous attempts at getting to that bowl, they finally let up and decided it was mommy’s and not worth getting into anymore. An important point in training is to keep the “test décor” in reach at all times like on the coffee table. If it’s hidden away on some remote shelf it totally defeats the training process. Once they had begun to grasp the “some things are mommy’s and we’re not supposed to touch” concept, then I introduced the idea of candles. First we lit one on the table while we were eating dinner. Gradually I started having candles on higher tables in glass vases where they could see the flame but couldn’t reach it or grab it. All the way continually explaining that some things are for decoration and are not to be touched or played with. This is also consistent training for store outings or in other people’s homes. Don’t you just love it when you’re in some very nice home where breakables and knick-knacks abound or in a store where a zillion things could come crashing to the floor? All I have to do is explain that something is glass or that it’s a decoration and my children have a great understanding of what not to do.
Eventually, and it didn’t really take that long, I had glass vases out, picture frames, and numerous decorative things throughout the house that my children never even touched. I would light candles in the evening, play some soft music, and have flowers wherever I wanted and the children loved it. They appreciated the calm mood in our home or when company was coming over. So I may not have my house just as “just so” as I used to, but I’ve brought back the more beautiful aspects that I longed for and am now sharing with my family not just by myself. We try to have the house mostly picked up in the evening and our children love sunsets, candles, a clean house and a bedtime story just as much as their parents do.
Here are some topics to consider when we’re arranging or making decisions for our homes. Different areas should be re-evaluated as your family enters into new ages and stages. The trend toward absurdly large and ostentatious has certainly been alive and well over the past several decades yet there does seem to be a tide turning toward a more cottagey outlook in some respects. It was quite a paradox and rather humorous to me to see extremely wealthy Floridian older women living with only their husbands in their monstrous Mediterranean McMansion voraciously snatching up the cutsie bungalow cottage furnishings as if they couldn’t have enough of them. I couldn’t help asking myself, “where are they going to use that stuff?” It was a bit of a leap for me to picture brightly painted wicker, distressed wooden frames, or signs gaily painted with ‘Beach House’ in their villa-scene with all the massive chandeliers, marble, and ornate staircases. Evidently, the summer cottage still holds its romance and appeal in spite of itself. I was heartened to read these same perceptions in Jim Tolpin’s book, The New Cottage Home. He begins by saying:
There seems to be a sea change in the way people are thinking about true wealth, true happiness, and the homes in which they want to live. At the same time our lives are becoming increasingly accelerated by the demands and trappings of the cybernetic future, many Americans find their hearts turning toward visions of a mellower and somehow more fundamental lifestyle. It seems we are finally ready to consider unpretentious, modest-sized houses that offer simplicity of form and construction; that are less consumptive of resources and energy; and that so fit the landscape that they look like they were “grown” rather than built there. We are ready for houses that belong comfortably to their site and regional heritage—houses to which we, in turn, can comfortably belong.
These houses seem to call as much to the heart as to the head, enriching us more with the highs of nature than with the highs of technology. These are the new American cottages that embody the ancient storybook dream, and the kind of homes that many of us have always dreamed of living in.
So what is this cottage type home and what are some of its qualities? If most of us find ourselves living in suburbia, U.S.A., then what are some of the elements that we could incorporate in our own homes to give it a little more cottagey appeal? Jim goes on to describe what ‘cottage’ really means:
For many of us, the archetypal image of the cottage home comes from storybook memories of our childhood: the diminutive dwelling glimpsed through trees at the end of a winding trail, smoke rising from the chimney, roses rambling over a trellis and up onto the thatched roof above, leaded windows, and inviting entry…
There’s something undeniably appealing about this image, something that makes the cottage the dream home for so many people today, but it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what it is. After all, also implied in this picture are cramped quarters, perhaps a dark interior, and a lack of modern amenities. In attempting to define the enduring appeal of cottages, words like comfort, coziness, charm, simplicity, intimacy, and romance readily spring to mind, suggesting that the idea of “cottage” is as much a state of mind as it is a tangible presence.
In our childhood, we found or created spaces to fulfill an essential need to feel safe and secure from an over-stimulating and dangerous-feeling outside world. We may be all grown up now, but these needs are still essential to our sense of well-being. Those who understand this, understand the appeal of the cottage house: A magical, almost mysterious, place that holds us closely within its lovely boundaries, warming and soothing our work- and world-weary souls.
I hope I’ve helped you understand what a cottage feels like and why it’s so appealing, but I’m sure you’re still wondering what, exactly makes one house just another house while another is—somehow—a “cottage.” I looked for certain attributes—features that in some way evoke these spaces of childhood.
· A modest-sized (under 2000 sq. ft.), compact footprint that does not necessarily sacrifice a sense of spaciousness in the floor plan.
· A human-scale entry that welcomes you home.
· An unpretentious and intimate interior—most often centered around a hearth—in which you instantly feel warm, relaxed, and cozy.
· An exterior that makes good use of indigenous materials. Shingle siding, cedar-shake roofs, and fieldstone say “cottage.”
· Well-crafted, sometimes quirky architectural details.
· The use of sashed windows—some diminutive in size—to reinforce the human scale of the building from the outside while giving a sense of security and protection to those on the inside.
· Thoughtful orientation of the building to the site and sun, relatively informal landscaping, and the presence of exterior “rooms” (porches, patios, decks)—all of which allow the house to respond to, and easily engage, its natural surroundings.
There are other attributes that come to mind—cozy nooks, high-pitched roofs, low ceilings, bare-wood floors, built-in furnishings, to name a few—but the seven characteristics listed above are, to me, the defining features of the small cottage home.
Certainly the cottage-type home is not every person’s preference. I personally hearken more to larger room sizes, tall doors and high ceilings, and more open floor plans. But I do think that many of the features Jim Tolpin describes can give any type or style house a more livable, homey atmosphere as well as provide some ideas in making smaller homes more quaint or pleasing. I also have to confess, though, that the more I’ve lived in smaller homes with my children, I have found divided up rooms as opposed to the open floor plans with lofts much more practical for children. For instance, our beach apartment had originally been three bedrooms on the second floor with a bathroom at the end of the hall way. The first room could be entered from the balcony outside while the interior rooms could be reached from the interior stairway from the apartment below. So the living room had a door that could be shut and its own balcony. The back bedroom (next to the bath) was turned into the kitchen. I was sure that I would never like having a kitchen at the very back of a house. But, guess what? It proved to have practical benefits that would never have occurred to me unless I had actually lived in that kind of arrangement. Since the children’s room was at the front next to the living room, we could quietly tip-toe to the kitchen and shut the door to make coffee and do all of our early morning rattling around without waking any of the children. I really ended up loving that feature. In our house now, we have high vaulted ceilings with the children in the loft so there is definitely no sneaking into the kitchen without a disturbance anymore.
It was also nice being able to close the door to the living room to treat it more as a guest room when family came to visit. The children’s room had two closets—one with deep, overhead storage which was a big plus. On the other hand, the loft is nice in that we can always keep an eye on what’s going on upstairs and monitor the children much more efficiently. So these are all things that I’m now taking into consideration in planning our next house. We’re going to examine these and more of these aspects in much greater detail in this chapter. Let’s begin by looking at our homes objectively and see how we might come up with some ideas to really make our homes all that they can be for us given our current place, stage, and resources. Terence Conran, author of The Essential House Book, gives this advice that we can heed throughout our life regarding our homes in greater and lesser degrees:
A good starting place for discovering what you really like is to make a list of some of the houses, rooms, stores or even restaurants that have appealed to you in the past, no matter how vague or amorphous the reason. Dredge up your memories, indulge in a little creative day-dreaming and try to recall not just how such places looked, but how they sounded, smelled and felt. A house from your childhood, a place by the sea or in the country where you once stayed, a wonderful hotel, a room in a friend’s home that you admire. Although its relevance may not appear immediately obvious, by analyzing precisely why such places are evocative and meaningful, you can begin to distill the elements that might be put to work to enrich your own home. THE ESSENTIAL HOUSE BOOK From a house to a home p. 17
We’ll first discuss ‘appropriateness’ and what it means to live ‘authentically.’ Then we’ll go into all the details in ‘setting up the home.’ The topics listed first have more to do with the children and the latter apply more for the adults in the house and to the overall approach.
Such a funny house!
There were yards and yards of sandy passages, leading to storerooms and nut-cellars and seed-cellars, all amongst the roots of the hedge. There was a kitchen, a parlour, a pantry, and a larder. Also, there was Mrs. Tittlemouse’s bedroom, where she slept in a little box bed!
The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse by Beatrix Potter
Homes should be Appropriate—to our life stage, surroundings, architecture Here are some clues to “appropriateness.” You guess what is and what isn’t. Ready?
Ø A log home in a cookie-cutter brick subdivision
Ø Contemporary monolithic cement-and-glass architecture in a salt-box neighborhood
Ø Mediterranean villa surrounded by historical gingerbread cottages
Ø Southwest-style-Mexican architecture on a split-level
Did you guess which ones might not exactly be appropriate? Good. Then you have better taste and sensibility than the vast majority of architectural anomalies we see dotted from one end of this country to the other. Good taste in just about every area a person could rattle off has in most respects completely flown the coop in our society, but we’ll try to resurrect a little of it even if it’s just for the sake of posterity.
You may be wondering, is ‘appropriate’ another word for bland? No, ‘suburbia’ is another word for bland, but what is there to do? I’ve lived in it numerous times myself. Unfortunately, we are a nation filled with rows upon rows upon rows of bland. We are literally swallowed up and overflowing with bland, unimaginative, nondescript, rubber-stamp architecture today. So, now it’s our job to find some innovative ways to transform the bland into the not-so-bland—or perhaps even quaint or charming. Sometimes with the extreme level of bland, we need to focus more on the interiors and just let the façade be what it’s going to be. I’ve had to do that very thing myself. Some landscaping can certainly help, of course, but it’s the living that’s taking place within our homes that’s vastly more important. Home is where the heart is, right? There are so many ways we can make our homes wonderful, comfortable, and imaginative despite whatever flaws they might have. Not all of us are able to create our ‘dream home’ and there are lots of ‘dream homes’ that stand empty because the inhabitants themselves have long since forgotten or abandoned their dreams.
Here are some excerpts from Alexandra Stoddard’s Creating a Beautiful Home pertaining to her vision of appropriateness:
· We all want our home to be a true expression of ourselves. But too often we’re timid about decorating because we have preconceived ideas of how a house should look. Inhibited by our lack of “expertise,” we don’t trust our ability…And then there are those of us starting out or starting over, who are eager to get going—but become so overwhelmed by the sheer range of choices…that we become paralyzed.
· Ask yourself what is appropriate for your house, for you and your family, for your budget, and for the limits of your room dimensions. Limitations are liberating, and their solutions self-directing. A family who creates rigidly formal rooms, while also raising young children in them, sends out signals that pretty things or delicate fabrics are more important than small, growing people. So, the more appropriate your room choices are, the more happy and complete will be the life lived out in them—and they will sing out with an unshakable integrity.
· Peter and I fell in love with a house of Shaker simplicity that most people would find ill-equipped for modern living. There are exposed pipes and radiators throughout the house. There is no closet in our bedroom, and the bathroom is out in the hall, rooming-house style. The ceilings upstairs are 7 feet and 1 inch high—hardly majestic but adequate for us. The low ceilings help us save energy the same way they helped keep the rooms warm during the eighteenth-century winters. There is something inexplicably charming about the authenticity of its scale. We have learned to accept and work with our house’s limitations.
· We selected village life rather than rural life because it suited our temperaments. We hear laughter and babies crying, and we enjoy seeing activities all around us. We have no garage, which suits us too, because we have no car. The Fourth of July parade goes right by our picket fence. Neighbors wave. When in the village, we walk, ride our bikes, or get a lift. Our dream was to find an eighteenth-century house in a quaint New England village with a view of the water. Big, open spaces aren’t as comforting as rooms overlooking the water where we can sit by a fire and curl up with a book. When friends come over, we pull up chairs and the room proportions are ideal for warm, friendly conversation and laughter. The fact that I can stare at the fire and glance out at the water at the same time is unbelievably thrilling. But on a practical level, we needed to work on the plumbing; we needed a new furnace and boiler. Our roof was rotten. On a purely aesthetic level, the colors were dead Colonial—absorbing all light, depressingly somber. Everything in the house was in dire need of repair—not to mention that we would literally be decorating this place from the ground up.
· We decided to spend some time just camping out in the house, to let the spaces speak to us and allow us to know the rooms firsthand. (We discovered that camping out is one sure way of discovering what you want to do). And slowly we learned that our house was utterly charming and wanted only to be loved, not completely made over. The rooms were ideal for comfort and pleasant conversations—and that was the spirit we set out to address.
· I don’t think I fully understood the meaning of appropriateness until I fell in love with our tiny cottage, with its peculiarly shaped spaces, curves, angles, and juts. We might have modernized the kitchen and the baths; we could have added bay windows and central air conditioning, but we decided to leave the house alone because, ultimately, the appropriate thing was to do nothing to change the structure. We retained the personality of an old cottage.
Home should be authentic— it should express who we are. Home is a day-to-day process which accommodates
growth, change, and renewal.
This appropriateness goes hand-in-hand with living authentically. We need to make decisions about our homes based on who we are, what we like, what we might want incorporated into our lives, and making our house function to suit the priorities in our family-life at that time. If we’re home schooling, or gardening, or if we play in a band, or work from home, or write articles for the local paper, or take care of an aging relative, our homes need to serve those needs to the greatest extent possible. If you don’t need an empty formal living room or dining room, use that space for something else you do need. If you have one child as opposed to six children, obviously your needs will be different. Alexandra Stoddard has more ideas on living authentically:
· The second key change in my thinking about the home is that we should take charge of our own life designs. The houses or apartments we live in, in whatever combination of circumstances, must adapt to us individually, and to our family’s changing needs and requirements.
· We are housing our lives now, and that cannot be dictated by abstract principles that say that a living room must be a living room, a dining room must be used as a dining room, and that a Tudor house must be an exact replica of a sixteenth-century residence.
· Take responsibility for the way your home feels.
· I’ve been in houses all my life, and more than ever I’m appreciative of the fact that home is central to our feelings of fulfillment. It is the hub of the wheel that allows us to explore all facets of a full and meaningful life. Home is where we can have perfect freedom to become the person we choose to be.
· To the extent that we are able to make selections or choices that satisfy ourselves and our needs, it is only a bonus when other people recognize what we did as worthy of praise. Spend your money on what makes you happy, not on what you can show off. Be authentic. Try to express yourself honestly in what you do. If we make choices based on what other people may think, we will be disappointed in life, because it won’t be ours to live.
We need to make all that square footage of space we have work for us—and it needs to work hard. The perfecting really comes into play when we can not only make our homes work hard for us but also look pretty—or even beautiful—at the same time.
Much of the character of everyman may be read in his house.
—John Ruskin Let’s be honest about it.
That big room isn’t the living room at all. Unless you have a great many rooms, that is a ghastly waste of space. The living room should be lived in
Down with pretense, sham, aesthetic quackery, up with honesty, sincerity
—Charles Locke. Eastlake, Hints on Household Taste, 1870
Excerpt form The Romantic Life, The Romantic Mom, Chap. 8 Aspects of the Homey Life, by Debbie Gallagher