For Mom, on her birthday …
My mom has always been an enthusiastic, talented decorator. As a child growing up, I watched her fill our home with beauty and color, a palette of brightness, yet soothing and always homey and comfortable. And she did it over and over and over again. With no formal training in interior design, she nonetheless incorporated into our home new styles, new designs, a blend of contemporary and antique, patterns with flowers, stripes, plaids, fabrics of all kinds, and lots and lots of color. She has genius and magic.
I’m not sure where she got all her talent because Grandma’s little house in the country seemed to have the once-hung-always-hung decorating principle. The oriental pictures Uncle Charlie brought from overseas remained above Grandma’s couch from my childhood through adulthood, as did the circular mirror beside the front door, as did the silhouette portraits in the hallway. Their familiar furniture was unchanging, Grandma’s chair near the kitchen and Grandpa’s recliner in front of the TV. Oh, Grandma put up holiday decorations for Christmas and even little pilgrim candles at Thanksgiving and tacked a cardboard bunny on the fridge at Easter, but her major gifts were more along the feeding of the multitude than fabric swatches and paint samples. Her furniture and pictures stayed put.
I started to realize that Mom had bona fide skills in beautifying the decor of every room in a house when we moved from our small home on Garver Drive to the big two-story house on Tillotson Avenue. I was six years old and to my young eyes, the new house was huge and dark and every room seemed to be gray with imposing heavy furniture. It was rather scary and menacing. I didn’t want to move from our light, safe, cheerful little home. But for Mom: wow, so much to do! So many possibilities! She had a decorating vision for each room: the kitchen, the dining room, the living room, the den, the two bathrooms, the four bedrooms, even the full basement. Her goal was to turn that big intimidating house into a welcoming, peaceful home. And she did!
Mom was a budget decorator. As a stay-at-home mother raising four kids on a coach’s salary, she was an expert at finding bargains and sale shopping. Except for the couch, Dad’s La-Z-Boy and our beds, none of our furnishings were bought in furniture or department stores. Instead, she and her friend Mac often went “junking,” traipsing around to old junk and thrift shops, coming home with treasures of walnut and oak and mahogany – chairs, chests, bureaus, but especially washstands and old picture frames. These objects usually had about a half dozen layers of paint that Mom would strip off to reveal charming and valuable craftsmanship. The restorations and transformations were dramatic. I’d watch her perform this magical removal as I sat on the basement steps. “Don’t you ever do this,” she admonished as she peeled away the colored layers with a piece of broken glass. She was very careful. She was brave.
This was the conundrum, however. Some furniture Mom stripped and stained, and some she painted. At one time our living room was furnished with beautifully restored antiques, while our kitchen table was surrounded with orange (yes, orange) chairs, and the dining room had aquamarine blue table and chairs (and buffet!). It was a fact: our home was original, nothing pedestrian or ordinary about it.
When Mom couldn’t find something at a good price, she improvised. She was innovative, clever, creative, and resourceful. Mom made curtains, hemmed drapes, sewed together throw pillows – all on the same Singer sewing machine she got the year she married Dad in 1953. So clever was Mom that for our summer trip from Indiana to Texas she even made curtains to hang in the back windows of our Ford station wagon! Purely functional, mind you, to keep out the sun, but also quite charming. I can tell you, our vehicle was clearly identifiable in every camping ground.
If I were to guess, I’d say our kitchen and maybe the bathrooms had at least seven or eight layers of wallpaper by the time we moved. Mom could have been hired as a professional wallpaper hanger. Although she did enjoy a decorating challenge, she once hired a professional to hang new striped wallpaper on the stairway walls because she thought she couldn’t do it. When all was said and done, however, she ended up showing him how to do it and completed the job herself. Never underestimate the power of a determined decorator. I watched him shake his head in amazement that she had showed him a thing or two. “I don’t think you should pay me,” he muttered.
Mom’s skills weren’t limited to sewing curtains, painting and wallpapering; she also dabbled in upholstery and even caned a small rocking chair. Well, almost. She finished the seat but not the back. Good effort though. She painted walls and furniture like some women painted their fingernails. She rearranged furniture in every room in the house so often that we kids (and Dad) didn’t dare enter a darkened room for fear of tripping over newly placed couches or washstands. She had an eye for picture and art placement on walls, she arranged fresh and silk flowers and knew instinctively what looked best where. Symmetry could be suitable, but anything in groups of threes was also appealing. She was an artist.
Throughout the 26 years living in the Tillotson house, Mom decorated, redecorated, and re-redecorated every room, even remodeling to create new rooms that she could decorate and redecorate. Dad didn’t seem to mind all the changes and helped with major projects, as long as at the end of the day he knew where his “king’s” chair was located. Mom provided the vision, Dad provided the labor (for the most part) and together they torn down walls to join a walk-in closet with the smallest bedroom; they remodeled the garage into a family room; they turned the den into another bedroom so each of us kids had our own room.
But no one in our family (except Mom and Dad) had a bedroom-for-life; in our household it was more like musical bedrooms. For a time, I had a lavender room across from the upstairs bathroom, then I had a hot pink and chartreuse room at the end of the hall, then I had the small bedroom-joined closet, then finally, home from college I had the downstairs bedroom/office. Actually, all that bedroom-moving gave Mom more occasions to paint walls, make curtains, and hunt for the perfect bedspread. And when my sister or I had a dream for a “perfect” bedroom, Mom was there with added imagination and ingenuity. She even allowed the boys their unique decorating fingerprint: a gigantic poster of Walter Payton in one bedroom and an orange shag bedspread in another. Sometimes Mom just shut their doors.
As a kid, I thought everyone’s mom could do what mine did, but I soon discovered that many of my friends’ moms had severe decorating deficiencies. Not that their homes were drab, but there was often a sameness to them. My friends often marveled that rooms in our house were constantly being changed and rearranged. Their observations and comments hinted at jealousy.
Throughout my entire childhood, our always-decorated home provided an environment of cheerfulness and ease for our whole family and our friends and our neighbors. Everyone loved coming to our home because it was beautiful, comfy and cozy, pleasant and relaxed, and rich with love. Mom did more than decorate our home with design and paint; she gave us all color and texture, beauty and value. By surrounding us with change, she improved us, enhanced us, restored us.
She decorated our lives. And still does.