A vivid memory of when I was not yet four is a fond one. We were moving into our new house, a post-WW II cottage, and Mama and I were alone in the empty house as we waited for furniture to be delivered. We sat together on a blanket on the floor in the middle of the living room, the blanket like an island surrounded by the shiny hardwood floors, not a scuff mark on them. This has always been a completely satisfying memory.
The house was a two bedroom, one bathroom house, but my goodness, how many relatives we crammed into it when holidays and family visits took place. One time it was so full that an uncle slept in the bathtub and another one under the dining room table. So much cooking took place in the little kitchen and outside on the small patio where Daddy grilled in the summer. My parents were both from poor families that had lived through the Depression, but all were hardworking men and women striving for a better life for their own children. By the time I was in elementary school, our family was typical of many 1950s era families, upwardly mobile before the term had been thought of.
There appeared a television, a blonde oak dining room set, and, wonder of wonders, an air conditioner sitting in a hole cut especially for it in the living room wall. No longer did we swelter during the summer with a slight relief felt when we went to bed and, lights out, my father pulled down the attic steps and switched on the large attic fan that sucked out some of the hot Tennessee air, drawing in gentle breezes of coolish, damp night air to move across my sticky arms and legs in shortie pajamas until I could finally pull up the thin white cotton sheet from the bottom of the bed.
My early life was filled with visits to family and friends who lived in houses fairly similar to ours. Each homemaker of these houses, housewives they were always called in those days, kept a spotless house, served wholesome meals, sent their children to school dressed appropriately, and went to the store, church, or doctor dressed like the ladies they were. On the other hand, in my memory, not one of them had the kind of decorating style that made me want to grow up and copy it. That's the truth of it so forgive me, ladies, please?
Then came the day as a pre-teen that I visited a different kind of house. Mrs. Deering played the piano at our church and was quietly elegant with a heavy chignon that shone. I didn't know the names of the labels in her clothes and wouldn't have recognized them if I had, but when I grew up I realized that she was the epitome of "The Talbot Woman" when that used to mean a whole lot. My first visit to her house with a group of girls from our church was a revelation. It was my first impression of realizing that the house "fitted" its owner in a completely perfect way.
It was an old brick two-story and inside was one room after another of antique furniture that gleamed from years of waxing. Lamps were scattered around the rooms instead of harsh overhead lighting, vases held loosely arranged roses from the garden, interesting accessories were mixed with books on shelves, and there were oil paintings on the walls. I felt as if I were in a trance as she showed us through her house, my heart thumping. I distinctly remember thinking, "Oh, this is what a house can be like. I never knew."
Two other things remain in my memory. In the master bedroom Mrs. Deering showed us how their bed, the spread made of a dull satiny material, swung apart at the footboards so that the linens could be changed and yet latched together at night. This was, you must remember, the day when married couples, always on television shows and movies, and often in real life, slept in twin beds. As our hostess showed us their bed, she smiled sweetly and told us, "I didn't get married to sleep three feet away from my husband."
The second thing that knocked my bobby sox off was that she served our group of young awkward girls a full nine-boy chicken curry lunch. It smelled divine and even those of us who were all elbows rose to the occasion and daintily served ourselves the chicken on top of the fluffiest riceI'd ever tasted, and next took tiny servings of the condiments of chopped peanuts, raisins, coconut, chutney (I'm betting it was Major Grey), apples, bananas, pineapple, and I can't remember what else.
It was the first time that I understood that food could be more than the sum of its components. It could look pretty, taste of foreign lands and foreign spices, and be served by a hostess who wanted to give young girls something to remember, maybe even something to aspire to.
From the day I visited Mrs. Deering's house I have had a love affair with houses. So much so that I dream about them. My most recurring dream has been one with different variations where I walk through my house, sometimes the one I'm presently living in, sometimes a former home, often a totally strange house but I know it's mine. And invariably I open a door and discover a new room that I never had known was there. Have you ever had a dream like that? It was not until I read Frances Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun that I found out other women have these dreams too.
"I dream of former houses I've lived in, or finding rooms I didn't know were there.
Many friends have told me that they, too, have this dream...In house after
house (my best friend's in high school, my childhood home),
I open a door and there is more than I knew."
Think of that!
I may not remember what someone is wearing if they invite me to their house, but I will remember each room I saw. And I will always remember Mrs. Deering's house. It may not have been quite as large as this one, but in my memory this is the way it looked.
Was the house you grew up in similar to what you wanted to live in as an adult? Or was there one you saw when you were growing up that made you think: "So this is what a house can be like."