One winter Monday, 15 or so years ago, I arrived at work to some devastating news: Over the weekend, a coworker had lost her home to a fire.
We all huddled around the coffee pot in the break room, trying to imagine—although we knew we couldn’t—what it would be like to lose almost all of your earthly possessions. A week later, when our colleague Chris returned to work, we began the slow process of bearing witness to her shock and grief. Then, months later, we were her empathic-yet-fascinated audience as she told stories of the new house rising from the ashes—not just being built, but also being populated with new things.
I was only in my late-20s and had accumulated relatively little, yet I couldn’t fathom what it would mean to start completely over. There would be the lack of pillowcases, cake pans, and familiar sweaters waiting for you as fall settles into winter, but also many harder-to-replace things: No rows of books with penciled notes and cardstock bookmarks identifying the shops where the books were bought. No wedding gifts that, each time you use them, bring to mind the great aunt or college friend who bestowed them. No outdated lamps from your childhood, handed down to you as you entered adulthood with so little.
Chris was in her late 50s, so the home she lost had contained decades of memories and treasures. While her new home was being built, Chris told us about the interior decorator, who specialized in “recreating meaning.” I was utterly fascinated by—and skeptical of—the process, which involved interviewing Chris and her husband to gather meaningful family stories and tales of travel adventures—references she would then bring into the new home through new objects.
I never would have dared to ask Chris, but I always wondered: Did it work? Can a home speak in retrospect of a life lived, or must the life be lived into the home?
* * * * *
I suppose the question needled me because it touched on an area I had dabbled in myself—but in reverse: I, as a newly married 22 year old, had attempted to use objects in my home to speak into my story. I didn’t know what my life would be like, but I knew what I wanted it to look like. If I built the stage, would the life follow?
Garage sales, thrift shops, and odd pieces of loaned and handed-down furniture created the kind of comfortable, quirky, space-with-a-history that I longed for. My husband was a painter, so the walls were filled with art (indicating that we were “creative” and “interesting,” of course!). A set of handmade pottery dishes, given to us as wedding gifts, conveyed that we were “down-to-earth” and “simple”—no fine china for us! And we rushed to buy books to fill the shelves—more books than we could possibly keep up with. It would take us years to actually read and absorb their stories and ideas, but that wasn’t the point. I wanted to be instantly surrounded by these visual symbols of intellect and depth.
In short, I wanted everything in my home to tell a story about us, but I was too impatient to let the stories emerge on their own.
* * * * *
Now I know the answer to the question I wanted to ask Chris so many years ago: A life must be lived into the things that fill a home—it can’t be put on, like a costume.
My home today (the eighth of my adulthood homes) is filled with evidence of a life that’s been both beautiful and complex. Yes, the books, art, furniture, and dishes each have stories to tell, but they are not all happy stories. They tell stories of a broken marriage as well as stories of wholeness and healing. They bring to mind the struggles and triumphs of single motherhood, as well as the ongoing tales of blending two families into a new one.
My eyes scan the rooms visible from where I sit at my desk. There’s the dining room table—the same table my ex-husband and I sat at four homes ago, a highchair pulled up so we could spoon food into our daughter’s mouth. Now, during dinners at that table, Jason and I navigate the tumble of tales and ideas shared by our three teenage daughters.
I can also see the vintage sofa I happily snatched up as a single mom about to move into a rented duplex. It’s the same sofa I sat on to read books to my young daughters, but it has since been reupholstered (following an unspeakable incident with the family dog). Behind the sofa is the piano I grew up hearing my grandmother play; she gave it to me when it was time for her to move into assisted living, and time for my daughters to learn to read music.
And beyond the sofa and piano, just inside the front door, is a gallery wall of small artwork and treasures. An olive-wood cross, carved and painted in Santorini where Jason and I honeymooned, hangs just to the left of a painting my ex-husband made of the house he and I lived in when our daughters were born.
Suddenly, I can see my home for what it is: not a collection of aesthetic choices I hope will communicate something appealing about me, but vessels holding the real stories that have emerged in my life. And that gallery wall in particular? It also symbolizes my acceptance of those stories—the intentional, beautiful stories as well as the haphazard and heartbreaking ones. Together, they speak truth: Welcome to my home, welcome to my life.