I grew up in a house in the suburbs of Manhattan. Close enough to the city that you could easily drive or take the train to Grand Central Station in under an hour but far enough that the seasons are fully visible in all their glory and the air can still smell sweet and grassy, even on the hottest days of summer. I still work in the city and enjoy all that it has to offer but my husband and I decided that the suburbs were the place to raise our family. I love our house and the property surrounding it. But after living in our home for 15 years, I looked around and saw that this venerable old thing, just like its owner, was probably due for a facelift.
Some painting perhaps, and fixing of the shutters and the driveway. The roof needed be looked at too. All the time consuming and thankless chores that get filed under “home maintenance”. So we painted and caulked and hammered, unsealed and then sealed again. At last, it was time to repaint our dining room, but I decided that in contrast to the rest of the house’s spare but peaceful white walls, it should be wallpapered. I had an idea in mind. A very specific idea that hovered there for weeks into months, but I could find no reference images of exactly what it was that I was looking for. Finally, I realized that the wallpaper project would have to wait because I knew exactly what I wanted but needed a visual to guide me. I continued to search magazines, the internet and interior design tomes for this mysterious wallpaper all to no avail. Finally, we prepped the walls, painted the room white over that, and let it be, in the hopes that eventually I would find what it was that I was looking for.
A few days ago, a year or more after Operation Domicile Facelift began in earnest, I was emptying and reorganizing one of our many overflowing bookshelves. By this point, I had pretty much given up the search for the wallpaper I had been envisioning for the dining room when an old black and white polaroid photo fell from my high school copy of The Catcher in the Rye. I glanced at the image and my heart immediately hurt. This was a photo of me and my best friend Audrey, sometime in middle school, dressed up for Halloween. We had drawn whiskers on our faces and blackened our noses. We looked, by all appearances, happy, young and carefree. But I looked at my tentative smile and remembered how even at that young age I had been self-conscious, nervous, easily startled. Audrey died when we were just 25 so the image was hard to look at but I couldn't tear myself away.
Then, as I looked closer, I gasped. There, even in this ancient black and white photograph, peeling and flaking with age and decomposition, was the wallpaper. The wallpaper that I had been searching for all this time. A faded large damask print, the wallpaper that I had grown up with. I felt cold and somewhat frightened. Is that what this was all about? Was I trying in my own house to recreate but improve upon my childhood home?
I do have some carefree memories of my house growing up. I liked Christmas and Easter. New Year's Day my mother would have her one party of the year. A party where she would make a huge batch of “artillery punch” and the grownups would get tipsy, and that was usually fun. But overall those years were a stressful and uncertain time for me. The seventies and early eighties were fraught with anxiety. In fact, one of my recurring nightmares, to this day, is that I am trapped in that house, unable to escape. After clawing my way out, I finally make it through a side door and out onto the porch, crawling on my stomach as if away from an explosion. Then suddenly, by some obscene and unseen force, I am pulled by my desperately flailing ankles back into the house. I am trapped, once again, in the warren-like, dusty attic or the low-ceilinged moldy basement. From which place, panting, terrified, angry and confused, I will have to plot my escape all over again. I have these nightmares at least once a month, waking up drenched in sweat and frantic, my heart thumping loudly in my chest. The house was sunlit and spacious enough with the “good bones” of an old house. Ours was a white colonial, set on a small hill, built in 1914. The house itself was fine. Yet my feelings about the house were not. And I was not alone.
Across the street from us lived a young girl named Julia, younger than me by a few years, who I believe today was on the autism spectrum as well as being almost entirely deaf. But she did have hearing aids and could speak a little bit. Once, I must have been around ten years old, I was playing basketball at her house with her brother. As she had never been to my house, she asked if she could come over. I held her small hand in mine and crossed the street. We went inside and up to my room so I could show her my stuffed animals and my goldfish named Gubbles. But she was uneasy, fidgety, nervous. “I'm scared” she said. “This is scary.” And I felt ashamed then. The most ashamed I had ever been in fact. I brought her down to the living room, which I thought was the most beautiful room in the house but she could not be appeased. “I’m scared” she repeated. “I want to go home.” I got mad, as a child does. But really what lurked underneath the anger was shame. This was my house. Where I lived. Where I had to sleep. I bristled at the fact that she found it frightening. Her fear made me angry. “Fine” I said, and I took her hand, brought her back to her brother, turned around and headed home. “That was fast!” I heard him say as I stomped away.
I told myself for years that Julia had been scared in my house because she was rarely without her family. She went to a special school and had aides to help her there so maybe the simple adventure of crossing the street and being without grownups unnerved her, frightening her into asking to be returned to the comfort of her own environment. But I’m not so sure. The truth is I agreed with this young girl. I too found the house scary at times during my years living there. Haunted by spirits and emotions and moods violent and unpredictable. My subconscious obviously still fears my childhood home, otherwise why the nightmares? Thirty-five years after leaving the house for good?
So why in the world would I be searching for this wallpaper? Wallpaper that I had completely forgotten about for decades. Had you asked me before finding the photo of Audrey and me what color my childhood dining room was I would have said white, like the rest of the house. But it was not white at all. It was a muted and peeling elegant damask. A warm pale golden hue that made the sundrenched room where it hung even more dazzling and warm in the winter months. And then I started to look more closely at my own house. The one I live in now. The house that I knew would be ours the second I stepped into it. I looked at the rooms and the architecture. The light and the style. The placement on a hill. The white house with the black shutters. The front door opening onto a small foyer and the steps off to the left. And then, the door at the back of the foyer, leading one out onto a porch, which looks out over the treetops. And I saw immediately what I was doing.
I had chosen a replica of my childhood home to raise my family. A bit larger and in better shape perhaps but still, there are too many similarities to ignore. Am I trying to recreate my childhood? Am I trying to do what my mother did? Raise three children in a home in the suburbs of Manhattan, but this time with a husband, resources, and a large and sober community backing me up? None of which she had. Is this what all children do? Take the good from their childhoods, learn from that, and discard the bad?
My mother tells me she did the best she could. And I believe her. And I am doing the best I can. But is it enough? Will it ever be enough? Parenting is not easy. After getting sober I would say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. My own parents taught me through their actions what to do and also what not to do. And I’m sure, although I try to dodge their exact parenting mis-steps, that I am making my own mistakes. My own parenting disasters. The things my own children will come back to me in 20 years saying “why did you do that? What were you thinking?”
For the time being I’m leaving my dining room be. I’m not so sure I want that wallpaper after all. But the search, and then the realization of where the idea for the wallpaper came from, was illuminating. The idea came from my past. A past both unsettling and wonderful. A sobering past, that I now realize - with profound acceptance - was exactly as it was meant to be.