When someone you love passes away, when someone who loves you passes away — the urge to cling to an object, a piece, a totem of some sort that represents that person can be overwhelming. Most of us have items in our lives that remind us of someone who is gone. Every time I look at a ceramic bird I have in my possession, for instance — a road runner, one of those fast little birds that populate Arizona — I think of my grandpa, who owned the bird before it was mine. Among many other qualities, my grandpa loved Zane Grey novels, fresh tomatoes, target shooting, and his grandchildren (of which there were many). He took a trip out west every chance he got, trying to experience a bit of the frontier while there was still a scrap of it left. So that little road runner — all I have from him, really — is not just a ceramic bird, a cheap souvenir from a long ago road trip. It represents him. And I can see him in my mind’s eye as I write this, alive.
So when I encounter someone who has been handed an entire house with all of its contents, a gift from the deceased, turned over to the living as an act of love and good faith, I think: that’s a whole lot of road runners. An entire house with room after room, all of them full of road runners, so to speak. What does someone do with such a gift? Such an overwhelming representation of another life? Especially when this particular gift has been thoughtfully and lovingly restored, the items in every room composing an idealized picture of the deceased owner’s vision of a life well-lived. Does the recipient preserve it as a sort of museum, each room intact, every item curated? Or should the house be a sort of shrine — a perpetual in memoriam? Well, I visited just such a house recently, and I had my answer. The vision of the house’s former owner carries on, and not because the furnishings she selected have stayed where she placed them more or less. Her house carries on because the one she handed it off to, the woman to whom she gave this great gift, is doing what should take place in every beloved house: living.
The house was built in 1760, originally composed of just four rooms before being expanded and converted to a two-family. The current owner’s aunt bought the house two hundred years after it was built, and as far as owners go, the house won the lottery, as this particular aunt was clearly not tempted in the least to create a sleek, contemporary interior in a historic shell. And this was the 1960s, the height of the craze for chrome and plastic, for replacing every porous surface with space age materials the expense of every other consideration. In spite of the mood of the day, the house was restored to a single-family home, highlighting all the elements that make an old New England house what it is: hand-forged hardware, paneled doors, paneled walls, painted floors and fireplaces in nearly every room.
Further, the aunt had the house decorated in a way that honored its early American roots — braided rugs and antiques — without being a slave to the period. The house is a tribute to the comforts that we want no matter the era: upholstered surfaces, warm colors, lots of books. Historically accurate and somehow completely contemporary, with modern elements added, especially through the artwork. It was as though Sister Parish took a break from decorating the houses of the Kennedys and their pals and stopped by Rockport, dropping off a few pillows along with suggestions for wallpaper. Great suggestions, apparently, as the wallpaper, 52 years after installation, is amazingly current. Or timeless, a much better word. Room after room is papered, beginning with a very chic grasscloth in the living room and getting better and better as you make your way through the house and up the stairs.
But as wonderful as the former owner’s taste and style were, and as delightfully intact as her furnishings remain, what pulls it all together and keeps it from just becoming another house museum is the layers that have been added since her death. What makes the house come alive is the fact that her niece, the present owner, loves it and lives in it so thoroughly, adding several decades worth of family photos and mementos, with a highchair in the kitchen and toys in the morning room for grandchildren.
I visited the old house on a blustery, warmish, half-sunny day, a typical April day in New England. The grass lining the walkway to the house was greening up, the tips of the tulips emerging from the cold earth. I could hear birds chirping in the graveyard on the other side of the stone wall bordering the house. The whole place felt very much alive.