My Grandmothers, My Self…

Nesting: It's a Chick Thing, May 2004

Nesting: It's a Chick Thing

From the New York Times bestseller Nesting: It’s a Chick Thing.

My sense of style came from my grandmothers. Though they were nothing alike, and barely even liked each other, they both had a strong decorating sense that shaped me as much as my mother’s did not. Don’t get me wrong: I love my mother. I just hated the furniture of my childhood, and didn’t even know it until I was looking for my first apartment with my husband-to-be.

“You know the kind of place, with towers and things, long windows? Old bathroom? What’s it called?” I asked my husband, when we were trying to figure out what we liked.

“Sure,” he said, nodding, smiling. “Old.”

It wasn’t until we actually found it, a second-floor one bedroom in a mustard yellow Queen Anne Victorian in West Philadelphia, that we knew what it was that we liked; and that we liked the same thing. This place took my breath away. There was a bay window in the living room; an archway leading to the tiny kitchen; black and white tile in the bathroom floor; a stained glass window in the bedroom; and an arched alcove, perfect for a dresser. I sighed with happiness as I unpacked my wedding gifts, finding just the right spot for everything. It reminded me of my grandmother’s place in Brooklyn, a fact I did not realize until she died and someone else pointed it out to me.

We relished the task of finding furniture that would suit us and our new place. We found an Art Nouveau dresser with a sinewy mahogany mirror attached, and paid $35 for it. One week later, as if by magic, a similar wardrobe appeared in the same store, hidden by rows and rows of yellow wood tables stacked upside down on top of each other. The wardrobe had a worn keyhole but no key. We paid $65 for it. We were on a roll, decorating our tiny splendid castle, beginning a lifelong tradition of uncovering “junque” and giving it new life.

I discovered lace. The filigreed shadows it makes when hit by the sunlight in the morning! The joy of rummaging in an antique store basket and finding a pair of castoff curtains, with only one tiny hole! The ecstasy of crocheted lace insets combined with carefully pressed Irish linen, the steamy smell of the iron on the cloth. I bought lace by the armful, and found ways to lay it casually, as if I couldn’t care less about it, underneath an ancient silver teapot. Yes, by all means, let the tarnish linger and highlight all of its scrolly details.

My mother would visit my houses, so many over the years, but always essentially the same. Old. Victorian. Weirdly-shaped rooms, stunningly beautiful mantles, the faint smell of past lives. I strove for elegance, above all else. I attempted classy. But somehow, I never got there. I always end up with comfortable, soft, pleasing. Maybe funky. Mom would look at my things with a puzzled expression. I could almost hear what she was thinking: Is this okay? Where did she come up with this stuff? Mom, whose first house was decorated “Danish Modern,” those unforgiving straight lines, geometric shapes, irregular angles. Mom’s house was smart, sophisticated, sixties. Mom was expressionistic modern dance. I was Tchaikovsky ballet.

Where did I come up with this stuff? Mostly from her mother. “Mama,” we called her. She was beautiful, with wavy white hair, a strong jaw, and a slim figure until she died. Her smiles were hard-won but worth it. Her Brooklyn apartment: high ceilings, ornate lobby, white ‘forties kitchen, big windows, and the best of all: a clawfoot tub for very deep baths. Her closet smelled of perfume and lipstick. She had rows and rows of beautiful shoes, a long dressing table, real jewelry (at least it looked real!) and dresses of tulle, satin, silk. Furs. Designer labels. It was all mine. I could try it all on, parade around in it all day. She didn’t care.

Then there was my other grandmother, “Gramma.” Gramma had a lot to say about everyone, held grudges that were forty years old. She loved me ferociously. I was her favorite; she made that very clear. She did everything big and overblown. She was fat, and wore pink or purple. She colored her hair fluffy yellow or orange. She was not above calling any of us in the middle of the night because she had heard about a murder in our city, and to tell us to be careful. “Don’t talk to no strange men, you know? Don’t go in their cars.” Even when I was 35. She had no taste whatsoever. Her furniture was gilded, shiny, covered with plastic, glittery. Statuettes of shepherdesses abounded. I broke stuff all the time when I visited.

I am certain that my style comes from Mama, a woman from the shtetl who managed always to live well and look good, to turn an old Brooklyn flat into a classy joint. She probably knew how to find beautiful bargains, just like me. She knew how to make fake seem real. Her stuff was probably junque, too; who knows? Like mine. The impression of grandeur, yet mostly found and revived. But certainly beautiful, tasteful.

And yet. If you look real close at my pretty rooms, sprinkled in among the strategically placed lace runners, the softly shining, dented silver, and the tasteful though gently worn mahogany, are some really hideous statuettes of shepherdesses, and some gilded stuff, too that I just can’t seem to put away in drawers.