A wood-framed mirror on the wall, simple and utterly forgettable. A row of framed school photos, each one showing a little boy progressing through the years, each one showing off a new missing tooth or slightly longer hair or that eyeliner phase. A green, translucent ashtray now being used to hold spare change and paper clips and safety pins and other things you can’t ever find when you need them. A bass fish sculpture on the living room mantel.
They sound like things. They are things. But their significance goes beyond that. They are handmade items carefully carved and whittled and sanded and painted by your great-great grandfather. They are photos of a little boy who became a man, a husband, a father, a pastor, a soccer enthusiast, and then was killed by a drunk driver. They are gifts given at your wedding in 1965, back when everyone smoked, and are now finding new ways to be efficient because you can’t imagine them not in your home. They are tacky decor picked up at the store, days after the funeral when his ashes were scattered in the lake he loved to fish in — things that feel like him.
They’re things. And they’re home.
When a set designer picks pieces and props for a room, the choosing goes beyond picking up some accessories at Target and a few pieces of IKEA furniture. The room should look lived in — like home. There should be pictures on the wall, but of whom? Of what? What kind of life is a character living in this room? What kind of world are they sharing with these four walls?
We’ve been in our home for nearly six months. Six months. It seems impossible and not long enough, all at the same time. The weeks before we closed, I spent every moment I could on furniture websites, Pinterest, and my own friends’ photos, trying to piece together what I wanted our home to look like. What colors did I want to paint? What kind of dresser would we need? What kind of bathroom rug would match the yellow, hexagonal tiles?
And for the first few weeks we lived here, those questions continued. I’d buy a paper towel holder and waver over if it was the right one. I’d buy a lamp, then decide that I hated it. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was the “right” way to decorate my office before I hung up an entire curtain of twinkling lights on my wall.
Now, six months into this adventure, I have just one thing I want our house to look like — home.
I look at the wedding photos I hung on the wall above the stairs and my heart skips a beat. I imagine Alice, at 10 or 11, staring at those pictures as she comes down the stairs for breakfast, her book bag slung over her shoulder. I imagine her thinking she can’t ever remember those photos not being there, of her at 2, smiling in front of everyone as she stole the show at our wedding ceremony. I think back to my own childhood, how I could tell you where every photo in my Granny’s house was. How there was a huge, framed piece of art over the fuse box in the hall and my Grandpa would carefully move it to fiddle with the switches when the power went out. How there was a framed copy of the Lord’s Prayer above the table in the kitchen, and I memorized it when I was in elementary school and took great pride in reciting it. How there was always popcorn in the cabinet and the fuzziest blankets in the linen closet — the same linen closet my cousin and I hid in for over 20 minutes, clamping our hands over our mouths to stifle the laughter as my little brother stood right outside the door, begging us to give up our game of hide and seek.
I look at the dish towel hanging over the oven and smile. I imagine myself, in 15 years, folding it out of the dryer, running my hands over the map of New York City, remembering how I bought it in the Strand bookstore on my first trip to NYC and how alive and exhilarated I felt in the city I’d been dreaming of since I could remember. I think about how it’s just a dish towel — a literal piece of fabric that will one day be so faded from wiping birthday cake batter off of kitchen tables and being used as a cape by my children and from drying wine glasses after a celebration, you won’t even see all of the landmarks on the map. I think about how it cost me less than $10, how I wavered over buying it because we hadn’t even found a house yet back home. I think about all of the dish towels in the thrift stores and yard sales. All of the dish towels bought in bulk at Target and Walmart. All of the dish towels on wedding registries that sound so pointless.
I look at the shelves on my kitchen wall and let out a contented sigh. The mint green cake pedestal my sister gave me for my wedding is there. The yellow Fiesta pitcher I wanted for years before I was generously gifted one at my bridal shower. The tiny framed photo of my parents, where they look so damn happy and my dad looks like a young Paul McCartney, in a frame, handmade in Africa, that one of my mom’s co-workers gave her years ago. The green rocks glasses decorated in flowers that Nick and I bought when we went to the Highlands with his parents for Valentine’s Day, five months before he would propose to me. I think about all of these things, how normal they all sound — a framed photo, a pitcher, a cake stand, glasses — and I think about how someone else might not take a second look.
Things. All of it. Things that, one day, when I’m long gone, someone might toss aside as junk. Things that, if they were in a yard sale, someone might not offer a dollar for. Things that, if spotted in a Target or an IKEA, might be met with a “Eh, I don’t really need another dish towel.”
They’re just things. They aren’t subway tile or Nate Berkus armchairs or Pinterest boards come to life. But like a half-finished puzzle, a half-melted candle, a half-read book, a half-eaten cake, they are life. They are pictures of the second best day of my life framed in gold, lining our staircase so I can relive those moments every morning and every night and every trip for a basket of laundry throughout the day. They are my hopes and dreams and wishes for the big city my childhood self longed for and the home my adult self desperately wanted wrapped up in fabric. They are my favorite things, reminding me of all the little stuff life has to offer, like photo booths and Wednesday night cakes and vodka tonics in the middle of summer, proudly displayed on a shelf.
They are the things Alice is going to grow up remembering. Things that, maybe, she’ll ask for when she moves into her own apartment or house or dorm for the first time. Things that, in 100 years, a family member might still have and someone will wonder why they’re keeping that old dish towel or those framed wedding photos of people who are long gone.
And that person will say, “Because they make me feel at home.”