The Reluctant Curator

LOve can make you do crazy things.

LIKE when your mother asks you to come over because she and your father are selling their house and downsizing. Only love can make you ignore the overwhelming feeling of a boa constrictor squeezing the reluctant yes out of your body when she says she has a collection of boxes from the attic with your name on them.

I speak metaphorically. The twenty or so boxes had other names on them. Old names. The names of my dead relatives: I knew what was in those boxes: china teacups and old silver. Formal objects no one uses anymore.

I’m part of the IKEA generation. We’re comfortable breaking things. My favorite mug has a giant chip in it.  My desk is full of scrapes and gouges. I once forgot a stainless steel teapot on the stove and it melted. Just the teapot–but the stove would have been soon to follow but for my late-but-timely skill turning off the burner. When I chip all the mugs or need a new teapot, I take a trek to IKEA: Scandinavian Land of the Allen Wrench where they design the packaging of a dining room table for ten to fit inside a Mini Cooper.

I admit to being seduced by IKEA’s international Marketplace. It’s chock-full of cheap chic dishes and orchids that always make me think I can keep one alive more than a week. IKEA is what our grandmothers called the Five and Ten, but updated and with Swedish meatballs.

But some things just can’t be replaced. Like mothers. There I was, face-to-face with mine in one of two rooms that were my parents’ newly downsized home surrounded by my family tree in boxes. The no I had mentally constructed as a shield on the drive down dissolved into air. She’d seen resistance on my face and was pouting.  I was a good daughter, wasn’t I? Was that a tear in the corner of her eye?

So, I packed my Mini Cooper with all twenty boxes and when I wasn’t looking, my father wedged in an Arts and Crafts chair with a seat in need of re-caning. When I reminded him I had a two hour drive home and now I couldn’t see out the rear window he said, “Don’t go backwards.”

Excavating the boxes’ contents on my dining room table the next day, it hit me that what used to be someone else’s functional object, was now mine, a broken object in need of fixing. Including: a fully crazed set of 1910 bone china, one ton of threadbare linens, forty floral mismatched teacups and saucers, and one doll with a cracked head.

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I won’t tell you what happened to the floral teacups because my mother has spies everywhere. But I kept the mostly unusable crazed china, washed the linens, and made plans to have the chair re-caned. I must have felt really guilty about the floral teacups because I felt a bizarre flush of excitement at the idea of restoring the doll with the cracked head. This was weird because 1. I saved no dolls from my own childhood and 2. dolls can be creepy.

Which is exactly what my 18-year-old twins said when I took her out of the box with my name on it. There she was in her creepy glory: a 117-year-old 14-inch leather-bodied doll with frozen joints. Her head was wrapped in a linen napkin. Peeling away the napkin revealed a yellowed face held together with Scotch tape. Placing her carefully on the table, I reached into the box and pulled out an entire Victorian wardrobe of handmade, doll-sized custom clothes. I was smitten. I reached into the box one last time and unwrapped a velvet hat. If I wasn’t already committed to restoring the doll, the hat did the trick. The size of my palm, it was moss green and accented with jaunty feathers.

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Love can make you do crazy things, like drive to a doll hospital in a downpour. While I drove I imagined the doll hospital lady removing the doll from its bag, cradling its cracked head and saying “How wonderful, she’s worth thousands!” I imagined selling the doll and buying my parents a bigger place where they could keep all their heirlooms.

I was still engaged in my fantasy once I arrived. I snapped photos of the doll hospital lady, a diminutive woman with meaty hands, removing the doll from its bag and zooming in for a close-up—photographic proof for my mother that I am a good daughter—that I was not prepared for what came next. She swiftly grabbed the doll’s face with one hand and cracked it like an egg shooting its eyes out onto the counter as if they were a pair of yolks.

I almost fainted.

While holding my doll’s eyes in her hand, the doll doctor spoke on the phone with her sister in Florida, a collector of antique doll clothes. With her other hand, she held the velvet chapeau up to the light. “You should see the hat. You’d die.” Then my doctor looked at me, the phone attached to her ear with her shoulder and said, “You wouldn’t consider selling the clothes, would you? The doll isn’t worth very much. The head was an early example of plastic–celluloid. She’ll need a new head.”

Then she held the doll’s eyes up to the light and said, “But we can re-use these—they’re hazel, like yours.”

I felt a little nauseous. I swallowed and stared at the broken doll on the counter.

“She was my great-grandmother’s,” I said. Adding the new refrain to my vocabulary since my mother downsized and outsourced her heirlooms, “I want it restored.” Then I said something I never imagined saying for any reason whatsoever:

“I’ll take a new head and I’m keeping the clothes.”

My doctor sighed and hung up the phone and I felt the potential of paying my parents to keep their heirlooms fly out the window.

But because of love, I did as I was told. While the doll was being operated on, I went home and soaked all her clothes for two days in a bucket of hot water and Oxyclean. Afterwards, I air-dried the clothes on a towel and ironed them. But because I’m part of the IKEA generation, first I had to buy a new iron. I paid the $150 doctor’s bill, photographed all the doll’s Victorian clothes, packed them in tissue, and attached the tag the doctor gave me, to the doll’s foot, detailing its age and details of restoration.

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I never showed my mother the eye yolks on the table photos. Just the restored doll herself, with her new head and original eyes, the same color as mine. A long time from now, my sons will just love inheriting her. Because love can make you do crazy things.

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Expert doll repairs by Calling All Dolls in Cobalt, CT

 

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A Nook of One’s Own

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” So said Virginia Woolf in 1928.

Ninety years later, this quote from A Room of One’s Own, Woolf’s extended essay from which it famously derives, is as relevant as ever-especially to me.

I write non-fiction and poetry. But does that preclude me from having a room of my own to make a writerly mess in?

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Woolf is a hero of mine: my English Springer is named after her and I believe The Waves to be one of the greatest accomplishments in novel writing history. My devotion is unmovable. . .unlike my furniture. Which resided in a very messy bedroom writing nook of one’s own.

One being me.

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One in a house of six, five: one husband, seventeen year-old twins (our older son recently decamped to Rhode Island), and the previously mentioned Woolf namesake. Writing anywhere other than a designated spot was at best inconvenient (the dining room) and at worst impossible (on the living room sofa).

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The nook I settled on is at the far end of our bedroom. Yes, it has a staircase to the main entry right behind it, and yes, it’s above the laundry room (ding!) but, the staircase is the fastest way to the tea kettle and the sound of laundry running gives this “one” a sense that all is right with the world.

Here is how my nook looked before:

(see previous post HERE)

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It’s amazing how unaware I was of the space. Given my design background, I should have been mortified. But, the eye sees what the eye wants and I decided to turn a blind eye in favor of being left alone. It was almost too much to ask that my space look nice. I mean, I’ve still got two sons at home, one of whom has yellow flower-patterned wallpaper on his bedroom walls that I PROMISED to remove. Three years ago.

The problem was, once I noticed my nook’s shabbiness, I couldn’t un-notice it. I stopped writing in favor of moving piles of paper and furniture around. I became counter-productive. The tipping point in favor of a nook makeover was that the son with the flowered wallpaper only uses his bedroom to sleep in and with the lights off. Also, my nook remodel expense was minor: we did the whole room for less than $1,000, including the floor. Also, I’m the mother and I’m in charge.

Coinciding with the finishing of the nook of my own,  I’ve had two ideas for novels-and I wrote them down.

Thank you Virginia Woolf. . . I love you.

Dude, You Won’t Want Your Lady to Read This. . .

Unless you want to up your game in the love department. But if you’re looking for some inspiration, by all means, you can both read on. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The romance bar has been raised. By this man:

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Meet Greg. Greg is my best friend of thirty years, husband of twenty-five years, and father to our three sons. Which is already super-star material. But he’s also the kind of guy who will buy me Tampax and chocolate at the pharmacy and has been by my side through one aggressive disease, four home remodels, three careers, and ten thousand cans of hairspray.

I know. Pretty f$cking amazing. But just wait.

Earlier this month I was headed here:

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I would be attending inspiring, one-of-a-kind Writer’s Hotel workshops, but I was also invited to serve as teaching assistant to the fantastic Marion Winik. I would be doing all sorts of cool and fun things like introduce Dana Isokawa of Poets & Writers Magazine and Carey Salerno of Alice James Books to attending poets on publishing and lead a Humor in Poetry workshop. Besides all that, along with the other 100 or so attendees, I would be reading at a famous NYC literary location.

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When I found out, a couple weeks ahead of time, that I would be at this NYC landmark, I told Greg, “The Red Room is SO cool, too bad you can’t come.”  Greg was at our kitchen counter, watching me put flowers I’d cut from our farmhouse property in a vase. Greg works in Boston, we live in northeast Connecticut, and Manhattan is out of the way of both. “You’re going to miss me reading and I’m going to miss the peonies blooming.” Spring in the Quiet Corner had been cool- our lilacs peaked two weeks later than usual and the peonies, my favorite flower, would be in full bloom all over the yard while I was in New York.

Greg said nothing. I didn’t even know if he’d heard me.

I arrived in the city on a Wednesday and by Friday, the day of my reading, I’d been so busy with the conference I barely had enough time to run to my hotel room, change, and print out my reading. I threw open my hotel door and saw this:

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Those are peonies. They look like my peonies. From my yard. No. They couldn’t be. Hey- that’s my vase!

I called out into the tiny hotel room, “Greg? Are you here?!” Then I looked under the bed and in the shower. No one. I shrugged and got changed quick. Just before I headed out the door to catch a taxi, I tucked a blossom behind my ear and took a picture.

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I texted Greg from the cab, “Are you in NY?”

“No- What are you talking about?”

“Um, there’s a bouquet of peonies in my hotel room and they’re in my vase from home!”

“I’ve got friends in high places. Enjoy your reading tonight, wish I was there!”

I’ll admit, a peony behind my ear provided more than perfume. I felt magical. Everything started to take on a fuchsia cast.

I climbed out of the taxi, walked up the steep (kind of crooked) stairs at KGB Bar and guess who was there? You guessed it.

Greg drove down to my hotel with the peonies strapped in the passenger seat and convinced the clerk to deliver them to my room. Then he hauled down to the Village and waited for me to show up. (Of course I was late.)

What can I say? I’m a slave to fashion.

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All the ladies loved Greg’s surprise. Scott Wolven, fiction writer, co-organizer of the conference, and newly engaged, said, “Great. That’s a smooth move that’s gonna be hard to beat.”

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The next morning, I was still seeing with peony colored glasses.

From the dogs swimming in Central Park. . .

The rowboats outside the Loeb Boathouse. . .

The promenade. . .

So, get on the stick gentlemen. . .do something nice for your lady.

 

Memory Lane

 

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Farmington Canal Heading South from Cheshire

I like to think I have a pretty good memory. Beyond the silly pride in remembering which of my several Winnie-the-Pooh shirts I wore the first day of kindergarten or which shade my hair was (out of the many colors it has been), when I first met my husband,  a good memory is a professional requirement if you are a writer of memoir. Which I am.

There are times you might think it would be better not to have such a detail-oriented memory.

Like when bad sh*t goes down and your life falls apart. That would be a good time to suddenly forget.

For example:

In 2001, my husband and I were bringing our marriage back from a precipice when a late-term ultrasound revealed we were having twins. Three months later a needle biopsy revealed I also had an aggressive cancer. Meanwhile, our house, perched on top of a natural spring, kept flooding. On the same day, I delivered two six pound baby boys and a cancerous tumor the size of a golf ball. During treatment of chemo and radiation, my husband and I saved our marriage and the house’s water-logged foundation. We somehow also fed and clothed a pair of infants and a four-year old.

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The Mount Carmel bike path connector- Sleeping Giant’s head in the distance. 

To cope survive, I wrote about it all. I also rode my bike. Once treatment was over, the twins were walking, and we sold the house- you’d think I’d want to shut the door on the past and never peek in there again. But you’d be wrong.

The past is never dead. It isn’t even past. – William Faulkner

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Our First House

I loved Hamden, the town we lived in. I loved walking the boys in their stroller up and down the hilly, tree-lined streets. I loved the freedom I felt every time I got Big Bertha, my cheap Caldor’s mountain bike, out of the garage, attached a runner’s radio to my upper arm with Velcro, stuck the headband-style headphones in my ears and took off flying.

If I intentionally forgot the time I spent in treatment or the twins’ colicky episodes from hell, I’d also have to forget the lightness that came from riding, one that lifted me out of the hole of recurrence and death, a hole I sometimes lived in. 

And so I made myself remember-all of it. It’s been seventeen years since I was diagnosed. I’m healthy as a horse and I still ride my bike. Eleven years ago we moved an hour and fifteen minutes northeast to Connecticut’s Quiet Corner. The bike riding is phenomenal. I found a posse I hang with and together we pull each other up hills and roll off mile after mile in congenial company. My ride is fancier and a whole hell of a lot lighter since Big Bertha is in the giant recycling pile in the sky. And yet. . . this spring I felt, excuse the pun, a shift.

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The day before yesterday I was in my old neighborhood visiting my parents who are about to move thirty minutes south. It seemed urgent to ride my old route on the bike path from Mount Carmel to Cheshire, but first climb Dickerman Street, past our old house. I realized, as I huffed and puffed past the adorable house with the steep center gable I’d once called mine, I was ready to say goodbye. I realized with surprise, that while the past, as Faulkner wrote, is not past but still with me, I wanted to put some memories to rest.

For one thing, I no longer live in fear of cancer recurrence or death. I  didn’t realize what I’d done until my ride was over: I’d retraced my cycling steps and said goodbye to the younger me. Because she’s all grown up now, and she’s doing just fine.

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I Blame the Lilacs

It’s not my fault I did no housework this week- it’s the lilacs’.

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Yeah, OK, it’s MY fault I bought the house with the giant lilac bush that smells like heaven and it’s MY fault I placed my desk under the window that looks out over the giant lilac bush and MY fault that I opened the window. But it’s the lilacs’ fault that they magically opened in the warm spring sunshine causing me. . .

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to forget about writing and doing the laundry and cooking and shopping and instead. . .

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run outside and smell them.

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And because I was already outside, I got further distracted and took about fifty pictures of the planet sized flowering quince covered in bumblebees and hummingbirds. This caused me to be late picking up one of my sons from school.

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Afterwards, I walked around the yard like I’d just had lilac-infused alcohol. I was a lilac zombie with a camera and took this picture. . .

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and this one.

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And I went on a bike ride and all I saw was purple

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I’ve been outside all week. The wind is blowing the writing off my desk. The laundry is touching the ceiling.

It’s a relief that I have to shut the window. . .the forecast is calling for rain.

 

 

 

 

Five Steps to Crazy

This is my office. AKA: the Writer Containment Area. An area that is not allowed the isolation of Area 51 as it is in my bedroom. Sometimes, I have visitors.

I used to be considered a neat freak. I can hear you laughing and asking me what all that stuff, very important writing process stuff, is. Let me break it down in a precise clockwise fashion:

  1. writing on the floor
  2. writing on the desk
  3. books and journals I should have already read on the floor, the desk, and the sofa.
  4. Art I made four years ago (during creative crisis) and still have not hung
  5. The printer is on the floor because in yet another vain attempt at becoming a minimalist, I removed the printer’s table.

This is a super embarrassing great photo to further illustrate how far down the slob rabbit hole I’ve gone. The old me would have ripped out the awful wall to wall carpet the day we moved in. It’s been two and a half years.

I’ve even let people see this space. Some of whom were without shoes. Or socks. Since I have rose colored glasses and can only see the lovely view, I imagined my visitors did as I did and ignored the stained carpet and all the papers, books, and floor obstacles. I am kind of impressed how long I let this mess fester. Like going to the hairdresser and having her say, “Your hair feels really healthy,” and responding, “I haven’t washed it in a week!”

The move two and a half years ago coincided with the book I was writing and the graduate school education I jumped into. While I was there I developed a Second Brain. Second Brain cares nothing for neatness and wants only to write books,devour literary journals, and write things that could, with a Herculean amount of editing muscle and luck, be printed in one. All was going swimmingly.

Then two weeks ago I submitted my manuscript to an agent who is, as we speak,  pitching it to publishing houses. So obviously, I got a dumpster.

It’s like Oprah always says, “Clean out your Writer Containment Area if you want to get published.” No? Sure she does. She also says, “To make room in your life for unlimited prosperity you must remove your unattractive 1990s carpets.” Then she’ll send me the keys to a Mercedes and a lifetime of Sephora. While I wait for that, I give you Five Steps to Crazy:

Step One: Enlist husband to rip up old icky carpet and lay new floor. Buy beer and whisky. (Maybe buy the beer and whisky before enlisting husband.)

Step Two: Put all the stuff back and snap a “before” photo.

Step Three: a week, two sore backs, and many stubbed toes later, voila! A place for the dog to sleep.

 

Step Four: Realize how amazing the space looks (what to call it, Modern Shaker?) without most of your stuff- like minimalist nirvana was achievable. However, you must now write downstairs at the dining room table because the green upholstered Parsons chair is in the dumpster.  A hole was worn in the fabric from sitting and watching the new David Letterman series on Netflix writing.

Step Five: Because you don’t want to pester the agent (WHAT’S HAPPENING?!), buy more beer and whisky because the bathroom is next.

In Praise of Green Things

Officially, I live in the Quiet Corner of Connecticut. Unofficially, it’s the Arctic Circle.

I lay in bed checking the forecast in hopes of seeing a reassuringly normal 30, even 25 degrees.  The phone screen illuminates, “Feels like -17.” I’m wearing that many layers to stay warm and I haven’t even left the house. This is a perfect excuse to boot the teenagers out of my favorite room and take it over. The best descriptor for that small parlor is straight out of Rebecca, the classic novel by Daphne du Maurier. In my morning room, unlike the movie adaptation, there are no rhododendrons but the owner’s name is apt: Mrs. de Winter. Like the name morning room implies, ours faces east and being small, is the only room in the house that remains cozy in sub-zero temperatures.

No video games this morning, boys.

I sit here, all tucked in on the daybed with the sun streaming across my lap and dream about spring. Since anything resembling green grass or green leaves is months away here in Connecticut’s northeast corner, I’ll share my favorite collection of green things, recently gathered.

Right after Christmas, my husband and I went to Newport, Rhode Island where we escaped the snow, but not the frigid temps. That didn’t stop us from taking in the Winter Passport mansion tour where I indulged in all things ornate.

From extravagant passementerie to an exhibit from the private collection of Pierre Cardin, I warmed right up.

 

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New Year’s Eve: New Year, Still Me

“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.” -Anthony G. Oettinger, Linguist

In less than nine hours it will be 2018. In the spirit of Type A procrastinators everywhere (yes, it’s a thing), I wonder:

Do I have enough time to achieve all my 2017 resolutions?

In my head spins the refrain to the John Lennon Christmas classic, Happy Xmas (War is Over), reminding me that I haven’t done most of what I thought I would: and what have you doneanother year over . . . My palms are sweaty, my right eyelid twitches. It’s been a busy year. I’ve done a lot. But those resolutions I write every year as the ball is about to drop, balancing a re-filled glass of wine between my fingers, are calling me from the deep part of my subconscious where they went before Happy New Year! was shouted with streamers.

Time to take stock. Written on hastily ripped graph paper in orange crayon at 11:55 PM December 31, 2016:

2017 Definitely Will Happen Resolutions

1. Weigh 125 lbs.

Unless I have a limb removed,* this is impossible.

Solution: Might as well enjoy that Lindt gold-wrapped chocolate ball staring at me on my desk.

2. Have book published. 

Despite best efforts, this is not something in my control. My much edited and rewritten memoir manuscript is presently in the actual hands of a literary agent and in the metaphorical hands of the Memoir Goddess who I christen: Mary Karr. (Can you think of a better name? Mary Karr has penned three brilliant chronological memoirs which are evidence that it can be done. Well.)

Solution: Accept that I have given this my best effort and will either have a book deal in 2018, or need to find an agent willing to take a chance on my work. Buy new notebook and begin writing second memoir.

3. Organize papers, including the mountain in the closet, sitting on top of the filing cabinet. 

I am a paper-person. I write long-hand. I still write checks. I write letters, insert them into envelopes, and affix stamps. I use a spiral-bound calendar made out of paper. I do not trust digital calendars, I trust trees. I live in a papery world and I like it. But is saving every utility bill and mortgage statement necessary when that part of life is online, and, we can safely assume, not a fad?

Solution: Plug in the shredder, feed it every paid invoice, and burn the ribboned heap in the fireplace in a symbolic gesture to simplicity. (Make sure not to shred entire family’s Social Security cards, which I know are in that pile. Also, make sure the flue is open.)

4. Catch up on reading. Stop reading multiple books at once.

My mother has a fantastic list of every book she’s read since the 1980s but more importantly, she finishes every book she begins. I aspire to this sort of organization. I have a leaning tower of books in several areas of my house: the nightstand (obviously), the kitchen counter, the living room book table (I don’t drink coffee), and sometimes piles appear on the staircase and the washing machine. I seem unable, however, to stay engaged with some books. Mid-read I will often reach for a book of poetry or a literary journal. This happens most with books people give me.

Solution: Forget it. I can never catch up or say no to a book someone gives me. And my life’s goal of being surrounded by books twenty-four hours a day cannot possibly happen in one year. I need another fifty. Also, I have absolutely no idea how many books I have read. Possibly one thousand. Which means there are at least one thousand books in my house I have not read. YAY!

5. Blog more frequently. Once a month, MINIMUM.

Solution: There’s always next year.

* Not a large limb, mind you- maybe my left arm to the elbow, or my right leg, up to the kneecap.

A Dramatic Entrance 

Our farmhouse is old. 1830 foundation old.

The main part of the house, rebuilt in 1900, is a Cape. Of course it has a front door, but since it faces the street, and not the driveway, we barely use it.

Attached to the rear of the Cape is an addition, once a woodshed/tractor garage.  That structure is now a two-story wing with a new main entrance that leads to the driveway. The outside is lovely: classic portico, hanging pendant light, bluestone underfoot- then you open the door.

And it’s boring as dirt.

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You are greeted by a utilitarian closet at right, and an electrical panel at left. A commercial-grade recessed light is not flattering to the space or your complexion. No place to toss the mail, keys, or check lipstick before running late to an appointment.

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Last May, in a spring fit, I took down the closet doors to create an alcove, slid a chest from the dining room in on a blanket, added a lamp and mirror.

A MAJOR improvement, but certainly not finished. I promised the space: next month.

Here it is, nearly a year later, with one patch of snow still in the yard and the entry is just as I left it. I thought I knew what I wanted. Wall color that is light, bright, and spare. Something like this:

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Pretty. Pretty freaking boring. I realized that for the last twenty years I’ve been creating houses for other people, even though I lived in them. The whole time I was paying the mortgage on the first three houses, I was designing the remodels based on a future buyer. The future buyer isn’t a mysterious creature: give them classic, solid construction with quality fixtures, and you’ll sell in days. But, this time I’m not leaving. So, I sat down and thought: what do I want my entry to look like?

Dramatic. Rich with heritage and oozing history. Every real estate agent says upon listing your house, “Remove family photos.” This will be the opposite. Walk in my house, and even if the dog answers the door, my family are in your face.

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I’m going against traditional small space design protocol. Instead of light-bright, I’m going for English gallery. The whole space is 10 feet by 10 feet. Hardly a manor entrance. But, I have about fifty framed photos to crowd the walls with.

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I haven’t decided on a precise color, but the options all have a theme: blue-black, green-black, ooo…how about blackety-black? This is damn fun.

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