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DSCN2568 (Captiva Island, 2009-ish)

“One of the last, and one of the greatest, was the shell collection amassed by the English conchologist Hugh Cuming (1791-1865)….No sooner had the collection been moved to the British Museum than Mrs J.E. Gray, wife of the Keeper of Zoology, carried the open drawers of shells across a courtyard in a howling gale and all the labels blew away. The Cuming collection has been a source of vexation and controversy to conchologists ever since.”

(Lynn Barber, The Heydey of Natural History, 1820-1870 (New York: Doubleday, 1980), p. 160)

I came across Mrs. J. E. Gray several years ago, in the course of my dissertation research. I followed her trail as far as it would go—as far as I let myself go, in one of those delightful dead-ends that are the moments we all hope for and dream of in scholarly work: the glimpses, again, and ever-so-briefly, of the pure thrill that is knowledge, and knowledge for its own sake. I didn’t need to know about Mrs. Gray, but I wanted to.

And so I wondered—

Was Mrs. Gray foolhardy in her decision to carry the trays of shells across that courtyard—No, no, I can manage, she might have protested, pushing her bustles through a narrow doorway, the demure heels of her pearl-buttoned leather boots tapping on the polished floor tiles. And as she exited the cool, calm sanctuary of the museum—a great whoosh and all those years of labor—all those tiny handwritten labels, yellowing and beginning to crumble just a bit around the edges—were gone in an instant. Poor Mrs. Gray—why did she not allow her husband to carry one of the drawers for her? Why did she not simply wait until the winds had calmed?

Or was she far more capable—far less capricious—than Barber’s brief description seems to allow? Perhaps that morning, she twisted and pinned her hair to keep it from falling in her face. At the museum, she smoothed a dusty smock over her dark silk skirts and set about her tasks—nothing much to do, just a few last drawers to carry over. Stacking her arms high with those carefully cataloged specimens, her mind swirled in a gale of Latin—Mitra Aurora, Mitra Adamsi, Mitra Arabica. And when she tried to chase those scraps of paper across the courtyard—the branches snagging her hair and the gravel slicing her hands as she bent to gather the lost labels in handfuls, she knew exactly what knowledge had been lost.

Mrs. Gray is but a footnote in the history of nineteenth-century museum culture. We could talk instead, as many do, of someone like Mary Anning (who is famous for giving names to specimens and not for losing them on a blustery day). But I have wondered about her. And now that I’ve found her, I’m delighted to know that she worked alongside her husband and gained notoriety in her own right—and that she endures today, as a genus of algae: Grayemma. How strange. How wonderful.

What do you think the dinner conversation was like at the Gray household that fateful evening? This is my elegy for her—for Maria Emma Gray.

domestic archaeology

I’m doing that thing again where I carry the camera from room to room, looking for corners and slices of beauty— cropping out the unseemly borders of my domestic life. The neat squares of Instagram  work so well with that editorial purpose. But here’s the fuller picture.

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We finally broke down and ordered new carpet for the red room (red room red room!) after wavering for a while on the idea of waiting things out until we have a fuller plan for renovating the kitchen and its faux-parquet linoleum floor. We thought about waiting until we could redo everything with hardwood to match the rest of the house; as you can see, there are many small continents of flooring coming together at this point. It helps me to think of things in geological terms here— then I’m not so bothered by the layers of sediment beneath the tectonic plates of ruby carpet, crumbling slate, and peeling parquet.

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The subduction zone where the carpet meets the tile has certainly created an area of seismic instability; I peeled a bit of it back to discover another layer of carpet (red tartan) lurking beneath duct-taped carpet padding and several decades of accumulated crud.

In the midst of it all, a certain small human spends her days caught between the glee and torture of the almost-crawl. She slides backwards, trying to gain traction on the wrong part of her foot; footie pajamas have become a cruel taunt, an endless slip-and-slide on the slick wood floors. When we release her on this more inviting surface, she escapes the borders of a clean quilt and dives headfirst into the cushioned pile of the rug, working her chubby fingers deep into the fibers.

So the carpet is on its way out, to be replaced by a paler shade of the same carpet we chose last year (the universe works in wonderful, chaotic ways, settling and unsettling us over and over again). But where to begin and where to end? When you start to pull the thread, the skeins of ugly tile and crumbling brick unravel all at once. We’ve made peace with the idea of painting the paneling and leaving the fireplace wall untouched for now—the brick is dark, but it might work once we lighten the rest of the room. I made the mistake of removing a line of caulk along the brick wall—I should have know that the caulk was a structural feature, holding a loose brick in place over an improvised bit of insulation:

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I do love vintage tablecloths.

Pigeonholes

Over the last two decades, I’ve lived in at least six houses. More, if you count some of the shorter stops along the way. The process of unpacking — settling stacks of books just so, reassembling and reinventing the vignettes of ceramic deer, brass models of the Eiffel Tower, and typewriters that follow me, changed or unchanged, from house to house —  always makes me think of Eric Carle’s hermit crab, plucking bits of coral and sea stars to adorn his shell. (Which, in turn, makes me wonder whether that book might have been what started this all?)

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Of course I enjoy this process of curating, as well as the small, simple discoveries that come with unpacking the nonessentials —I’d forgotten all about these tiny porcelain quail. The ceramic tiles came from the Roman Bath in, well, Bath. The aqua piece of wood could also be one of my early design inspirations (we all know I love that shade of blue) — it’s a tool for making shapes in sand. I remember playing with it in Colorado Springs, but it’s been in my grandmother’s French secretary for at least the last twenty years.

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This secretary was my desk even when I was a child; I have a distinct memory of hiding a half-eaten carrot in one of the pigeonholes. When I took it over again in Madison, I moved the remaining treasures into the top left drawer. They stayed there as I finished coursework and struggled over my dissertation; they stayed there when the secretary made its way back to Colorado (where many of these trinkets first joined the journey); they stayed there when we packed everything up again and headed east.

It’s a funny little gallery of nonsense. None of these things were ever particularly precious to me; their survival seems to have been mostly incidental, and they’ve stayed in place because they were never big enough or fragile enough to require any attention as the secretary made its way across the county, crisscrossing the midwest before leaping all the way here.

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They’ve earned the right to stay.

mix and match

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It’s winter break now, too bitterly cold to make it worth the time and the fuss of bundling up the tiny one for an escape to one big-box store or another (I read a description somewhere of dressing a baby: trying to fit an octopus into a string bag, particularly apt when it comes to outerwear) which means that we’re going a little stir-crazy. But it also means that we have time to channel some of that crazy into unpacking some of the boxes that have been following us around for the last two years.

Things were so barely settled in the last house before we swept everything off the shelves (and then sold the shelves) to move again; we’ve been here before, moving the lamps from room to room, swapping end tables and those rush-seated white chairs I bought at Goodwill (is that lead paint? I’d better test it)— trying to figure out how to reshape the contents of one house into an entirely different form. One bedroom is much larger, the other much smaller. The prettier, less comfortable couch has finally ended up in the right spot— more visible but less-frequently-sat-upon (unless you count the cats). I can’t stand any of these throw pillows. 

There are some little things we just can’t find (why are we missing one piece of the citrus juicer? how did we lose the frame but not the baskets for our closet storage?) and we’re a long way from breaking into the boxes of decorative stuff (though we currently have an entire closet shelf devoted to brass animals). As we try to sort things out, I’ve decided to treat the amazingly loud wallpaper in our bedroom as a neutral.

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It goes with blue and white porcelain, of course. And though we laughed when the seller’s agent told us that the previous owner’s only response to the question “are there wood floors under the pink carpet?” was “who would want to wake up and put their bare feet on wood floors?”— I bought a rug to cover some of the now-exposed wood in the bedroom. Image

And I wouldn’t exactly say that the rug goes with the wallpaper, but then again, what would go with this wallpaper? So I’m not sure where to go with it. We may end up covering most of the wallpapered wall with wardrobes, in which case the remaining bit of it might be more amusing than overwhelming. And I am still kind of fond of it, though everyday it seems to grow a bit louder— which is the opposite of what you might expect. Rather than growing used to it and seeing it less, it stands out to me more and more each morning when I wake up staring at its psychedelic expanse of avocado green and garish pink.

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Perhaps I’m feeling overly sensitive to the explosion of patterns because of the current scene in our second (non-yellow) bathroom:

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Peeling pink wallpaper, a gilded medicine cabinet frame, and a positively clashy shower curtain (last seen two houses ago, in my much-missed, all white bathroom with lovely subway tile). With any luck, a few more showers and the wallpaper will just take the rest of its sad self down for us. I feel no regrets about losing this roomfull of pattern; we have plenty to spare in the rest of the house…

home.

Even if I’d had the time, I wouldn’t have been able to put words to the months that have passed since I last posted here. So much has changed, and I don’t know where to begin again.

I have a new home state, a new job, a new house, and, oh yeah, a new baby, so finding time to write should probably fall somewhere on the list behind the other things I rarely get to do— bathe, wear things that don’t smell vaguely of rotten milk, eat something other than trail mix— and yet, here I am.

And now, she naps. And now, I write.

I unwrapped a few pieces of furniture last night. As I peeled the tape and moving blankets off of my coffee table— you know, the one with the glass top and the cubbies full of old books, glitter birds, and other useless things— I remembered how, when I bought it— and, rather insensibly, wrestled it out of the back of my car on my own— I knew that it wasn’t really for that house.  It was always for a future house. I lived with it in Madison, always knowing that it would move on (and so would I). I lived with it in Colorado, though it never quite fit. And neither did I.

 

I was struck last night, though, by the sense that it was meant for this house. That we were meant for this house. I can’t describe my affection for this mid-century marvel—

a white brick and vinyl ranch with technicolor carpeting, a time-capsule kitchen, and a pair of yellow bathroom sinks which, in their white-topped vanity, resemble an diner plate of sunny side up eggs—

It’s everything I never really wanted. I’m a Victorianist. I long for clapboard siding, curving stairs, and garret windows. Glass panes that have poured themselves slowly downward across a century or two. Gabled ceilings and squat doorways meant for curiously smaller men and women (stooped and starved and squeezed). Forgotten attics. Grimy coal chutes. Sitting rooms and servant’s quarters.

But somehow, this house just feels right (even though so much of it is just plain wrong).  We have a lot to do, but for once, I feel no rush to make it right. We have time. And we have wallpaper. So much wallpaper.

I feel like I can breathe. I love the trees here, the wild turkeys in the fields, the profound depth of the wild woods that border our lot, the fawn and doe that have made their home in our backyard. The way that the nights are turning cold, the glow of the lights from the bedroom windows that I see when I walk the dogs under the magnolia tree at night.

We’re home now. The little things can wait.

Shift

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It’s happening again; the carefully-crafted vignettes are disappearing into swirls of bubble wrap—or wads of rumpled Target bags and crumpled drafts of my writing, as the end draws nearer. The dining table is sold, leaving a line of chairs against an empty wall (the bookshelves went, too). The dogs wander through the emptying rooms, seeking shelter from the chaos beneath pieces of furniture that shift and move without warning.

It’s easier this time; almost exactly a year has passed since we did this last, carting boxes in instead of out, imagining ourselves into this life and this house rather than tucking it all away as we move towards a more uncertain future. I pull the knickknacks from the mantel without the sadness I felt last year. I’m thinking of the peonies that would have just finished blooming behind my tiny white house in Madison, but nothing catches at me here, at least not yet. I planted alliums in the fall and watched them bloom, knowing that we’d be gone by the time they came around again. And that felt fine. 

I’ve been eating a lot of those popsicles that claim some degree of nutritional value by virtue of their fruit juice content. When it comes to eating sticks of frozen sugar water, it’s probably all kind of the same. Anyway, I was just eating a strawberry one— reclining on the couch— after the inevitable happened— the last piece, too big to fit all in one bite, fell off the stick and started melting on my collarbone— I found myself craving a real red popsicle.

The cherry kind. Well, “cherry.” The ones that seem to be made out of the same syrup that you use to fill one of those red plastic hummingbird feeders.

That’s all for now. Too much to tell really, but I hope we’ll catch up soon. 

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