La maison, c’est moi

My family religiously observed the tradition of Sunday dinner (literally, since, as many readers know, family time is a Mormon fetish). Every other week we gathered for the whole evening⎯the grandparents, the siblings, and us, the first cousins. To say the teenaged me took these get-togethers for granted would be a huge understatement, but I realize now that having those memories makes me tremendously lucky.

The dinner table conversation consisted of three topics: 1) food, particularly the preparation of the meal we were presently consuming; 2) home design, notably whatever projects or plans were currently underway; and 3) um….maybe there were only two.

So these two topics offered a universe, an infinite cosmos, of conversation. My grandmother, a gifted cook, set standards that everyone else in the family worked hard to meet as they took turns hosting. If you toiled for hours on a homemade blueberry pie (and there was no other kind, believe me), you could count on at least fifteen minutes spent reviewing the crust⎯the ingredients, the prep, even the barometric pressure on the day it was baked. What’s the right amount of sugar to add to the berries? That depends⎯when were they picked? Where? What about the whipped cream? Did you chill the bowl long enough? Add a drop of vanilla, or no? Overall, how close is the pie to perfection? How does it compare to all previous pies? How could it be better?

It wasn’t mean-spirited, tear-you-down criticism; it was genuinely offered in the spirit of experimentation. Of science. Anyone in my family can cook anything. (It’s ridiculous.) Food is practical, I learned, but it’s also deeply creative and competitive and worth your attention.

The same thing goes for having a beautiful home. All my elders helped design and build their houses, and worked constantly to improve them. My grandfather, a WWII Navy radio operator and technical writer, was an Idaho farm boy transplanted to the east coast. He was raised to work with his hands. As a young vet he dug out the basement of his and his bride’s new home with a spade, and built it up from there. (My grandmother reminded us of this fact whenever we complained about housework.) My parents built the stone wall around their place with the rocks pulled up from digging out their own foundation. You want a deck? You want to lay down a new maple floor? You want rhododendrons in the front yard? Do it yourself, I learned.

Decorating was no different. I must have spent more time hearing about window treatments than I spent studying in any college course. Choose the fabrics, create the design, “run up” the draperies yourself. My aunt, an interior designer by trade, was the most passionate on the topic; it consumed her thoughts. One Sunday at dinner she confessed a long and elaborate recurring dream in which she was commissioned by Prince to sew swags and jabots. Everyone at the table laughed uproariously⎯not at the silliness of being Prince’s decorator, but at the thought that my aunt would ever deign to make jabots. Ha ha! It cracks me up even now.

If you don’t know what a jabot is, don’t worry. Most people don’t. But the specialized language of a skill is part of the fun: jacquard, finial, bias cut, Roman shade, valance. Insider-y shop talk: What’s the better original finish for that Heywood-Wakefield buffet: Champagne, Wheat, or Natural? Why? Are you sure? I took such matters as life-and-death decisions, subscribing to Met Home before Seventeen. Other kids admired singers and athletes; I idolized Andree Putman and Terence Conran.

I thought everyone’s family was like this. It wasn’t until much, much later that I realized dinner conversation could consist of anything other than…dinner. Travel, current events, the performing arts, technology, sports, business⎯to me, they were just sections of the newspaper. But guess what? Some people really care about that stuff! And they talk about it instead of whether to plant Japanese or Siberian irises!

All of this baggage has been weighing heavily on me recently as I seriously shop for my first home. My inner child, a little kid who begged for graph paper and a drafting pencil to draw floor plans of my “dream house,” has to shut the hell up. When entering the world of real estate, you have to be ruthless. You cannot fall in love with the first perfect house you see, because it will break your heart. You have to have a little bit of vision to see past what is, but be realistic about what can be. You have to know your limits and your budget. You have to search your soul to decide what’s a compromise and what’s a must-have. It’s a tricky calculus, weighing all the variables, questioning your values. We’re not what we own, true⎯but aren’t we, just a little bit, where we live? Don’t we deserve some beauty in our surroundings?

Even to have “taste” in such things is a matter of privilege, and nobody wants to be a snob, but DAMN, there is some ugly real estate out there. It’s almost as if everyone has chosen to live in the housing equivalent of Twinkies and Sno-Balls. I am looking for an artisanal brioche. And if I can’t find it, I might have to bake it myself.

9 responses to “La maison, c’est moi”

  1. Marleyfan says:

    Do you have a problem with sno-balls? I make them for a living, and am proud of it! But Twinkies on the other-hand are low class with a capitol L.

  2. swells says:

    Good luck, Rachel–it’s such an exciting search!

  3. swells says:

    One (of many) memorable stories from househunting: we saw a place with a big grassy side yard next to the house with a tree in it. The guy showing the house said “The good thing about this is, you can cut down this tree, pave this all over, and then you can park your RV here.”

  4. swells says:

    like my syntax there? the house didn’t have a tree in it.

  5. Tim says:

    What we have right there is a “misplaced modifier”, my friends. Look and learn.

    Rachel, I loved this. Maybe you should buy a piece of property and build yourself a house. Dig the basement out yourself! Document the whole thing with copious photos and keep us informed through your posts right here on TGW. What do you say?

  6. Rachel says:

    Sorry if I offended any other Sno-Ball lovers out there. (But seriously, would you want to live in one?)

    As for the house–hey, it might be cool with a tree in it! (Hey swells, didn’t you spend time in a yurt? Practically the same thing!)

    Tim, I would love to build & post about it, but my head might explode from the drama.

    How have others handled the home-choosing odyssey?

  7. Ivy says:

    I just bought the other day. I move on the 18th. My head is ready to explode just with buying (let alone building), but the relief I felt at finally getting there is profound. A friend said to me that buying a home changed her at a cellular level. I can feel it happening. It all feels like a miracle, to be honest: not only did it happen, but I got something cute. I was expecting to live in something I would refer to henceforth as ‘my hovel’. It is nice as is, but I can make it better, too. I also grew up obsessing about interior design: made furniture and houses and chattels for my dollies (and once oddly, for a ‘family’ of dead bees) but never played with them. I just wanted to renovate. Now, finally, after some fairly appalling times, I’ve got there. Hoorah! Well, in two weeks, anyway.

    The great thing is, one only needs house, even if one has to look at 47 gross ones first. So it felt like a bit of an endurance race to me. But the strangest thing was, it felt like MY house wanted ME. What triumph!

    Now I just feel like if anyone comes there uninvited or tries to take it away, I will bite them.

    So good luck, Rachel. I am sure the universe will provide.

  8. Rachel says:

    Congratulations, Ivy!

  9. Ivy says:

    Thanks, it was and is a big deal. I am a late bloomer, so it feel like a real milestone (and not a millstone one can only hope).

    Good luck again.