I’ve been wearing my great-grandmother’s engagement ring instead of mine lately–thinking, as I endeavor not to knock it too hard on any hard surfaces, of the name that had been handed down to her, which she handed down again, to her daughter, and which we gave to ours.

Last summer, in a feat of cooperation, my uncle, dad, and mom conspired together to transport a truck full of my grandmother’s furniture–including this mirror, table, and chair–to my house. The threads of the past are holding me tight, even though I sometimes feel unmoored in this new place. Last year, I would often wake up thinking that I was in our bedroom in Colorado (every corner illuminated with that incessant sunlight) and be startled to find myself here, across the county in a state that will never truly seem like my “home” state, though it’s the only one that CMW will remember. I am not a New Yorker. We are both Colorado natives, she and I, but I’m not that, either. A librarian at school told me that my boots looked Midwestern. I don’t think it was a compliment. My students here are shocked to learn that I lived in Missouri. They’ve never met anyone from Missouri. I’m almost mythological. But I don’t feel like I’m from Missouri.

One of my grandmother’s tables has a small drawer. My fingers touched a small roll of yellow, brittle newspaper that had come loose from some space within that drawer; I unrolled it just enough to see “New York” and a date.  After a generation’s worth of transcontinental migrations (no member of my family born in the same state or even living now in the same time zone as one another) I find that it is 19 miles from my house to the house in Yonkers where (society pages tell me) dances were held to celebrate my grandfather’s visits home from business school. Google maps can show me the outline of the roof, take me there in half an hour (traffic willing, which it never is). What a thing that is, to find your own life–so seemingly unpredictable, untethered–mapped on top of family history, tucked into drawers.


Memories from a long, difficult day at the end of a long, sleepless week–spots of bright that I don’t want to lose:

CMW gently lifting the leaves of the strawberry plants to look for ripe berries–today, we found only the nibbled-off stem of one that another critter found first.

She can hardly breathe with excitement when we pick a small, misshapen, slightly-too-pink and definitely not-quite-red berry, popping it into her mouth (stem and all) before I can stop her. And I don’t really want to–what harm can that little bit of dirt do?

Sitting on the front step–up too late, as we have been every night for as long as I can remember–the hooting owls, pots of bluish purple pansies, and the smell of a just-watered garden (which makes me think, always, of my grandparents). Admiring, by moonlight, our massive, fragrant front-yard magnolia tree–stunning even as it turns ragged with dropping petals. I have never seen such a beautiful tree.

The paint is peeling next to the front door, white stained slightly orange from the minerals in our well water. I think they slapped on the wrong paint in a rush to beautify–or sanitize, at least– before we bought this house. I feel overwhelmed by the drips of water and the wobbly subfloor. I think I love this house, though, somewhere beneath the surface of endless to-dos. It gives me room to breathe.

And to grow: blueberries, pole beans, giant alliums, radishes, double pink roses, mammoth sunflowers, mandevilla vines on an arched trellis. Any thing I can think to plant, I try–carving out new beds and filling in between the haphazard, half-hearted shrubbery. We have a lot of land. The deer–foxes, toads, robins, ground hogs, turkeys, rabbits–really have most of it.

The cats murdered a mouse last week after it wandered into the basement at night (all five of them creeping, waiting); I can only hope its friends were made aware of the foolishness entering this particular house.

I made Ricky clean it up. I am a bad feminist, weak in the face of death (large or small).

dig site

You know, our yellow bathroom really could have been fine. Except for the fact that somewhere along the line–probably only 10 or 15 years after it was built, someone decided to spruce it up a bit. The resulting mismash of disparate yellows, precarious mirrors, contact paper and plastic wall panels have not aged well. Through the excavations, we’ve discovered some traces of what the original 1967 version would have looked like. I think it would have been a lot like this, which I really find quite charming.

As I’ve mentioned, the floor tiles that we inherited are actually wall tiles in a hideous striation of yellows that don’t go with the other yellows. They’re glossy, treacherous, and just weird.

converging yellows

converging yellows

Underneath the fried egg vanities—which have been banished—we found a corner of the original mosaic floor.

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There’s also a spot where a medicine cabinet used to be (in the middle of the wall) and signs that the original sink was a smaller single fixture—I suspect it was a wall mounted sink (and probably yellow). I probably would have liked it. I certainly would have liked it more than the decaying plywood vanities they chose as a replacement.

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I’m going to see if we can scrape up some of these little tiles. I don’t know what I’ll do with them yet, but I like the traces of what used to be.

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Here’s a slice of the original metallic wallpaper–the brown streaks are glue from the layers of stuff that were applied on top during that last unfortunate renovation.

We’re not going to be reapplying any metallic wallpaper, but finding the traces of the original sink and floor tile makes me think that I’m on the right track with the replacements that I’ve chosen–a pedestal sink and small-scale floor tile. We won’t be able to recreate the yellow floor mosaic (though people certainly have worked to source rooms full of vintage replacement tile), but it’s reassuring to see that the new pieces are in line with the originals in terms of scale and placement.

I will not miss the yellow toilet.


If it’s true that the kitchens and baths sell a house… then I’m not quite sure how we ended up with this house.

All glammed up in the listing photos.

All glammed up in the listing photo

Ok, I know exactly why we bought this house–it’s right around the corner from my job, the lot is lovely, the layout is spacious, and, furthermore, there just weren’t that many options.

I like this house. Despite its shocking lack of turrets (my ideal mid-century is really a century earlier), I might even be getting to love it, though the ice dams and roof leaks tempered my affections this winter. And really, I’m glad that nobody cherry-cabinet-ed and granite counter-ed the kitchen before we got to it.

But this living museum has started to break down a bit; after decades of limited use (the original owner was in her nineties when she sold it to us), things are creaking and cracking under the pressure of their new workload.

We can talk about the kitchen more another day–or another year, if I keep up with my current blogging pace. Things are in full swing around here; spurred on by some drywall damage during the aforementioned ice dam attack, walls are coming down in just about every room.

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10552428_894286201142_826812822440986557_n the mirrors came (all the way) down today after barely clinging for the last few months/decades

Our house has two bathrooms–the yellow is a full bathroom off the hallway in the bedroom wing of the house, and there’s a small and largely unremarkable 3/4 bath occupying a closet-like nook in the master bedroom (which you will recognize by virtue of its alarming wallpaper).

the mini-master bath: a tale for another day.

the mini-master bath: a tale for another day. (eek)

I do have some affection for the yellow bathtub. But I have none for the yellow egg-yolk sinks, none for the slippery yellow wall tile that’s been masquerading as floor tile, none the alarming yellow toilet, and none for the (wait for it) yellow wallpaper. Which is actually contact paper (ugh).*

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As for the tub and the tile surround–should I start a new chapter of this?–I don’t hate it. Ricky has fond memories of being bathed in a similar tub when he was a child, the tile is in good shape, and it certainly suits the era of the house. In Madison, I kept the old cast iron tub (it was white…) and replaced only the tile; I learned that these old tubs are mostly nicer than the replacement options. They are deep; they hold the heat well. And they are very, very heavy to move.

So our plan for the yellow bathroom is to gut everything except for the tub and tile surround. The double vanity is going to be replaced by a single pedestal sink; there’s a huge linen closet next to the tub, so we don’t need the storage. The extra sink only gathers dust because we never use them at the same time. I chose something vintage-y for the floor, but I’m a bit anxious about how it will all come together.

My hope is that by swapping out some of the scary yellow fixtures, we can work with the tub and make the room look like a better version of its own vintage. This is my dream, which will, of course, be tempered by a touch of bumblebee in our reality.

The idea of getting rid of the tub actually made me feel a twinge of anticipatory regret/guilt; we’ll see how I feel in a few weeks.

Please forgive me for any typos contained herein; whilst the baby naps, I type furiously. These days, it’s either bad writing or none.


*One wonders what Charlotte Perkins Gilman would have had to say about yellow contact paper; it’s so much more sinister. I think there’s a conference paper in there somewhere.

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.


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.


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:


I do love vintage tablecloths.


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?)


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.


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


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.


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.





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


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…


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.



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.