My Father’s Lawn, and Mine

He mows it in crisp lines so it looks like a baseball field.

In my memory, it’s lush and cool when you return home from a walk or an errand, encircled by North Florida humidity, shaded by two maples and a pine. (That was years ago. Some of those trees have aged and died.)Read More »

Closed Floor Plans

I’d like to take a moment to speak in favor of the lesser known closed floor plan.

While the Gaineses rule the world, eliminating one non-load-bearing wall after another, we cheerfully survive in a smallish house stuffed full of walls. And what’s more, we’ve added back doors!

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Big Scary Purchases

I’ve had a mantra this summer as we’ve made several big, scary purchases:

It is my privilege to get to make these decisions.

When it’s overwhelming to decide on grouts. When there are delays in installation. When I’m learning how to drive a much bigger vehicle.

I sometimes find the language of privilege a little exhausting. But after years and years where frugality was a cornerstone of life, it is a novelty, if not an outright blessing, to be getting to shell out on these big, scary purchases that will, I hope, improve the life of our family for years and years to come.

There have been road trips where we crammed into our clown car with two small children, a dog, and quite a lot of associated kid stuff, and that was fine, because we then didn’t have a car payment, but now we have the option of financing a little when we could buy outright and enjoying enough space for our totally alarming amount of juvenile travel junk. There have been years where getting rid of all the mold in our various basement apartments was a (plumbing) pipe dream, so it’s kind of a privilege to wait around for the mold remediation guys now.

This can, of course, be argued further. Many Americans don’t have a reliable vehicle at all, much less the opportunity to upgrade to one spacious enough for their family. Many people long for children and would give anything to contend with the amount of junk that often accompanies parenthood. Or push beyond: not only am I lucky not have to have a moldy sink, but in the global perspective, I’m dang lucky to have running water in my home.

In that past life, I was never very patient when people would talk at length about their intense struggles to find the perfect shade of burgundy curtains or whatever. Like, does that really count as a legitimate frustration? In practice, this now mostly means that sure, I’ll talk your ear off about quartz versus soapstone if you’re in the market, too, but otherwise, I’ll keep my burdens of privilege to myself. So maybe we’ll have to go a few days without a kitchen sink this summer. So maybe J had to spend a day of vacation negotiating with used car salesmen when he’d rather be doing practically anything else, and we would have preferred a vacation to England over budgeting necessary home repairs.

It is certainly a pain in the butt to be a grownup and a homeowner, but right now, it’s better (for us) than the alternative.

The agony and the ecstasy, et cetera

My Garden, the Mission Field

Well, we’re back from our Superlong Vacation® and so the gardening can officially begin. But I find myself at a loss. I’ve kept tomato bushes and herbs alive, occasionally, and killed African violets with great guilt and inevitability, but my horticultural ignorance is considerable.

I feel inordinately bad when I kill things, and I don’t have the budget for it, anyway. So instead, I’ve been starting out slowly with hand-me-down plants, like the Solomon’s Seal a friend gave me last month, or the mini rose bush we received as a housewarming gift. But I keep hitting roadblocks from ignorance: Is this grassy weed-thing grass or actually some bulb? Is the peony bush supposed to look like that? Can I plant irises, and where?

A couple of weekends ago, some of J’s family came to visit. When they’re in town, we try to entertain them in high style (ha! two little kids! ha! our little town!), but on Sunday morning they materialized after Mass and his grandmother and aunt announced they were going to work on my garden.

Oh, ok, I said perplexedly. Then I noticed the gloves. They had been planning on this.

Grandma Judy rescues the front garden
For the next few hours, I flitted around unhelpfully, ferrying the occasional San Pellegrino, pulling a weed here and there as instructed, putting the baby down for her nap and getting her back up, then keeping her from eating (much) greenery.

And they — well, they revolutionized my yard. With cheerful determination, the two women shaped and tidied, tossing off advice as they went. I scrambled inside for my notebook. They sent J and his uncle to the hardware store with a list: mulch, trowel, more gloves, clippers. (When they had asked for clippers, we, with what I’m sure was charming naïveté,had fished out wire clippers.) In the interim J and his uncle fixed the gutter his keen-eyed real estate agent aunt had noticed needed attention.
The whole thing actually reminded me of the medical mission trip J and I tagged along on when we moved to Uganda as newlyweds. The doctors had drawn up careful lists of supplies and come armed to teach the local surgeon new orthopedic and urological procedures, leaving behind the scope and other tools they’d lugged with them. They’d assisted in surgery, teaching Dr. Frank as they worked, knocking out the most pressing cases in the region for free during their little mission trip. It was amazing.

New! Improved!
This, too, was a mission of mercy for clueless new homeowners. (I didn’t even know anything was wrong with our gutter, for starters.) They graciously sacrificed part of their vacation to work and work hard for our sake, and imparted their wisdom along the way. I’m not sure it’s any less noble, in its own way.

The rescue squad

Evaluating Our Home in Light of Margaret Kim Peterson’s Keeping House

Ok, I admit I’m obsessed with this book, but I read it at just the right time, when I feel like I’m really starting to make decisions that will shape our shared life and family culture. Who wouldn’t love a book that asks questions like, “Can we — do we — keep house in ways that respect and embrace our creatureliness and that foster community within and beyond our households?”

I interpret this to mean that one must have a house that acknowledges the physical needs and creature comforts of those who might pass through: nothing too pristine to be touched, a spare high chair or booster seat ready to be brought out of retirement in the basement, a comfortable chair for an old neighbor.

Peterson writes, “The physical fabric and setting of the house does matter when it comes to the creation of a home. […] Your house, in other words, affects how you live, and how you live affects your house.” The passage articulated a hunch I’d felt while house hunting and envisioning the kind of life I could live in each house. After all that obsession and soul-searching, our consideration of city versus suburbs was a legitimate one — our desire to have a house where we could walk or bike ride places, and easily invite even undergrads without cars.

Perhaps my favorite passage was a simple question: “Or will we set up our homes in ways that encourage household members actually to live in community with one another?” Yes! When we moved into our four-bedroom home, it seemed obvious that we’d take the large bedroom downstairs for our own, put Scout in the small bedroom downstairs, and park Pippin in one of the two bedrooms upstairs, reserving the last upstairs bedroom for J’s office.

But consider: we don’t actually spend a lot of time in our bedrooms. And Pippin gets up once at night to use the bathroom, often needing help, so it would be more convenient to be upstairs with him. And Scout gets up entirely too much at night. (Working on it, ugh.) And we wanted to have more space to play, and to entertain.

So we ditched our box springs, which wouldn’t fit upstairs, and put all four of us in the two small upstairs bedrooms with the plan that Scout would start in the big closet (her “closery”) and eventually bunk with Pippin. It’s a plan to maximize actually living in community with each other, and to free up space downstairs for parties, playdates, and overnight guests. I don’t think it’s the standard approach most American families would take upon settling into our house.

I’m trying to set up house without too much emphasis on beauty over utility, remembering: “If we furnish our homes with cooking and eating and conversation and sleeping in mind, we will be more likely to live in them in ways that foster nourishment and refreshment and engagement with the routines that sustain the bodies and souls of individuals and of communities.”

Scout modeling her “closery” — lighting necessarily awful because, hey, no natural light.


The Long View

At the end of March, we bought ourselves a house. And I don’t know if it’s our age or the recovering economy or whatever, but in that time I’ve had four or five other close friends go through the same exhilarating/nauseating roller coaster.

Most of those friends have a kid or two, and one friend asked me how to get unpacked and settled in with kids underfoot and the answer, I suspect, is mostly you don’t, or at least not with much haste.

All of us, we new homeowners, want something Instagrammable right away. We are scouring Pinterest, so impatient to make this new house “ours.” It’s tempting to stay up late unpacking, to spend a lot of money right away for that missing detail, to hold off having anyone over until we’re really settled. We’re Millennials, and we’ve been renting our entire adult lives. We’re ready to really own a place.

Mostly, though, I try to get out of the house with the kids because hey, it’s summertime, and we shouldn’t waste it, but also because when I am chasing off the baby from the electric outlets and fielding the preschooler’s request for a toy we haven’t unpacked yet and thinking about how I should haul another box up from the basement or take a crack at a better kitchen arrangement, I’m not the kind of mother I want to be.

Luckily for me a few weeks into unpacking (or not) we headed down to Tallahassee, where much of the month I stayed in the house my parents have owned since I was seven years old.

My dad, spiffing up the back of the house in 1993

It’s a house where I can see work and evolution and process in every room. That evidence is somehow reassuring. My mom’s gardening has changed and improved as she’s gotten to know the soil and entered a new season of life without kids at home when she can devote more time. As far back as I can remember, my parents’ house has been tidier than my current acceptable level, but the level of cleanliness they can maintain now that my father is a full time homemaker differs form how I remember it growing up. And every time something has broken since 1993, my parents have replaced it with something just a little nicer, a little more to their taste.

It all combines to reassure me that there is no static moment when a house is done. It feels overwhelming to think of the projects that loom before us, but so long as we keep the back porch from completing its transformation into a rotted death trap, we’ve got all the time in the world to make this little Craftsman our home. We can afford to play the long game.