Thursday, July 17, 2014

Home Remedies: Turning A House into a Home

Read Alli Palmgren's column in the July 17, 2014 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin. Alli is the Technology Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library.

For the past few years, my husband and I lived in a rented house located in his hometown.  The location was great and the rent was beyond cheap, but it would be kind to call the house a fixer-upper. The roof leaked, the ceiling in the master bedroom was so low that my husband once put his head through it while putting on a pair of pants, we used one of the bathrooms as a closet because the plumbing was not functional, and so many critters found their way in that we could have started a wildlife sanctuary. In short, the house was a dump.

In the beginning, the landlord promised improvements. After a couple of years of “I’ll fix it next month,” with no results, we began to doubt his intent to improve or even maintain the property. At first, I tried to make the best of it. I placed potted flowers on the sagging porch and hung pictures over the holes in the walls, but after a while I realized that you can’t polish a…well, you know.

From the start, there was a running joke among our friends that the house was constantly on the verge of being condemned. In recent months, it started to seem like that was a distinct possibility. While I kept the house clean, we gave up on all but the absolutely necessary activities to keep the building habitable.
When the landlord expressed an interest in selling our rented house, we took it as a sign that renting was no longer for us. We needed to buy a house of our own. I quickly found a local realtor and got our financial ducks in a row. Within 6 weeks, we had closed on a small lakeside cottage.

Throughout those 6 weeks, I dreamed of all the improvements we would make. I envisioned extending the deck to capture more of the lovely views of the water and fantasized about the elaborate meals I would prepare in our cute little kitchen. Only when we moved in did it dawn on me, I really have no idea how to keep house. The house should keep you, not the opposite, right? Wrong.

Sure, I can cook and clean, but I am no Martha Stewart or Bob Villa. Somehow, I managed to obtain a Master’s degree, but never learned the proper way to hang a picture when thumb tacks won’t cut it. When my husband remarked that the toilet wouldn’t stop running, I replied, “Well, go catch it!” Even with the dads in our lives helping to make us handy-people, the learning process is slower than I would have liked.
To hasten things along, I found a few helpful books. While the Martha Stewart and Good Housekeeping titles are the standard, there are some less well known books that tackle the subject of cleaning, maintenance, and design in more manageable (i.e. less anxiety inducing) packages.

“House of Havoc” by Marni Jameson is quickly becoming my housekeeping go-to. This book is full of well-organized tips that are firmly rooted in the real world. While I would love to have fresh flowers on the kitchen table every day, this books acknowledges that a less perishable centerpiece looks better than a wilted vase of forgotten flowers.

As soon as I read the chapter on learning to master the virtue of restraint in design, I knew that Marni Jameson would be my savior. With the help of this book, I am learning that I don’t have to incorporate all of the 87 mason jars left over from my wedding into my kitchen design just because I have them. “Accessorize, don’t EXcessorize” is my new mantra.

While I haven’t decided if this is an unfortunate thing or not, the fact is that our new house is smaller than our old rented house. With that in mind, I picked up a couple of books on downsizing. The best one was “Downsizing Your Home with Style,” by Lauri Ward. This book shows the reader how to evaluate, arrange, decorate, and live in smaller spaces. Her “never keep” list gave me a good starting point for what to toss or donate, but I think I will ignore that tip about recycling “unread books you never seem to get around to reading.”

The most helpful of the books I picked up contained virtually no instructions or advice, but it reminded me that the most important thing about housekeeping is the house keeper. “Dirt,” edited by Mindy Lewis is a collection of stories about the quirks of housekeeping, but also about the people that perform (or in some cases, don’t perform) the tasks that keep a house tidy. This book helped me to remember that there is real personal meaning behind menial household tasks.

It will probably take more than a few good books to become a real domestic diva and we will likely make many mistakes while turning our new house into a home. Nevertheless, we are thrilled to have a place to call our own- a place with ceilings high enough for a grown man to be able to get dressed without the threat of a concussion.