Sarah Van Arsdale
judge a book by its cover, but maybe it isnt impossible to judge a person by her
Or so I have thought since my mother died.
My mother was in her late seventies, but, as I like to tell anyone who will listen, she
was a very young 77, just as she was a young 76, 75, 74, etc.
In fact, one reason her
illness and death took me by such surprise was because she just didnt fit the
stereotype of the grandmotherly lady, with her hair curled and blued, sitting in her easy
chair in front of the TV.
Nor did her home fit the stereotype. First of all, in her later years, she moved more than
a few times always of her own volition so her home didnt have the
stuffy feeling that anyones home can get after accumulating season after season of
books, tchotchkes, furniture, etc. Each time she moved, she would divest herself of a few
items that she didnt absolutely love, so each time she settled in to a new place,
the belongings in it were pared down to the essentials that best reflected who she was.
Second, she steadfastly refused to conform to just about anything, but especially to other
peoples expectations of what an older person should or should not do. For one thing,
she kept working as a freelance photographer, until, at 76, her illness made this
impossible. At 75, she was just beginning to suspect that people might not hire her
because of her age, but the hell with them, she said.
I am convinced that what kept her so young was her continuing
curiosity about the world, and her willingness to change and this is
what kept her home alive and young, too.
||When she moved into her last home, at
about 73 years old, she had the carpet ripped out of the living room and installed big
white tiles instead. A white sofa, a woven white rug, and white chairs completed the room,
but rather than looking sterile, it looked bright and sunny, even on the cloudiest days.
Furthermore, the room wasnt just static white: the white just provided a neutral
background for the bright spots of color which were the interior focal points of the room:
a framed bright blue painting by my sister, a multi-colored woven felt bowl on a shelf,
and of course her colorful worm collection.
Worm collection? Worm collection. I honestly cannot stand to get one more bar of
Lily of the Valley soap or another pair of gloves, she complained to me one year in
preparation for the annual Christmas shopping debacle. Im going to start a
collection of something impossible to buy for.
Within a few years, she had some stunning worms, ceramic, rubber, even the prize worm of
the group, a gold worm on a little wooden stand.
centerpiece of the living room, however, was the view through the sliding glass doors. My
mother knew that by keeping the interior simple and neutral, a guests eye would be
drawn to the view, and the sightline would be fairly uninterrupted and she knew that the
natural world could provide a far better décor than the best interior designer.
But what made my mothers home so great was that it was truly a reflection of her own
unique way of seeing the world, and that, I think, is the lesson she taught me about
Theres something frightening to me in walking into someones home and realizing
I know nothing more about them than I did when I was outside ringing the buzzer. A
non-descript sofa, a coffee table, a lamp. A dining table the likes of which Ive
seen hundreds of times over, in fancy catalogues or furniture bargain barns. And perhaps
most telling (or not telling, that is): no books.
What has led us to this way of life, in which even our homes dont reflect our
personalities? Is it the relentless advertising, and our belief that the taste-makers who
produce the design magazine and who do the buying for the big national furniture chains
know better than we do?
Design techniques can be learned: just look at the thousands of
Sheffield graduates who
have gone on to improve peoples homes but whats trickier is learning how to
make your own place truly your own. Ultimately, I think, that means
being curious, and taking risks, and being willing to change –
qualities my mother had in spades.
||Maybe tiling a living room floor with
white tiles is too expensive a risk (especially if you have small children or large pets)
but why not break out of the mold, and ask yourself what it is you really love, and then
surround yourself with only those things?
Go ahead: frame the drawing your nephew made, or
the watercolor you yourself painted.
If you prefer sitting on cushions on the floor to
having a sofa, ditch the couch and start stuffing.
If you dont like curtains, dont
put them up. Break the rules, and follow your own design sense.
These qualities of my mothers kept her young, and I only wish they had been enough
to also keep her alive, because I can only imagine how she would have startled people at
And may you too at 77, or 45, or 28 defy the conventions of your age, and
follow your own unique vision for your home, your work, and your life. That my New Years
Wish for all our readers.
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