Decorating the House: An Allegory of Revision

by Gerry LaFemina

stanza: late 16th century: from Italian meaning station, stopping-place, or room.

Four years ago, I bought a house, a small three-bedroom ranch in Frostburg, Maryland. I liked its mid-century modern touches (archways, a telephone nook) and its humble size on a good plot of land. I was moving from a two-bedroom apartment and would have to fill the space. I’ve lived here four years, and things still aren’t “finished.”

I lived with the white walls, each rectangular space and unblemished page, added among them the old living room furniture, the preexisting art. What would the space ask of it? And what would I ask of the space? What was the vision of the house? Who was I in this house, at this time in my life—parent of an adult child, professor, poet, rock ’n’ roller—and how would this space reflect that?

Every change creates a ripple effect. Take a painting down and there’s the blank space. Get a new painting and consider how it talks to the other paintings, the furniture. Get a new couch and love seat, black-and-white leather with funky pillows, that begs the paintings to do more work to bring color into the room. Get fed up with the dull wood paneling wall behind the fireplace and get it tiled in stone strips. But the muted blues and reds and grays of the stone beg for something more, something else. Get a new rug. Keep the art deco wall mirror. Put two Miro lithographs up, one on either side of the mirror. Consider pitching the coffee table. (I’m still not sure).  The light blue curtains work. Note to self: take the valance off the bay window and paint it gray.

That’s the same gray as the accent wall in the dining room. Remember, the rooms talk to each other. In here line the walls with poetry broadsides, framed. The poetry bookshelves are here, too: poetry is a type of sustenance. Change the light fixture for something more modern. Find a dining room table, without chairs. Look for chairs that will suffice short term: they’re cheap, and they wobble, but they hold weight at least for a while. Keep looking for the right chairs: antique stores, furniture stores, online. Repeat. Finally, take a chance and hope it works out. It does.

The kitchen is large with a lot of open space that goes underutilized and not a lot of counter space. It took a year to get rid of the lace curtains (Not that I didn’t know they needed to go, but I wanted the right ones…), though a dishwasher went in right away (I recognized it was missing and that the kitchen needed a dishwasher), though that requires the removal of a cabinet, reworking the electricity. I put up a ceiling fan: something with a little pizzazz but not overpowering the fifties vibe. It’s a balancing act: what does the space need? Paint the kitchen a smoky light blue. Talk to friends; an ex-girlfriend who used the kitchen with me suggests a floating countertop, and I talk to a handyman. We can’t find a match for the existing countertop, and since I won’t replace all of them I go with a tile top. Subway tile, to go with the framed New York City Subway maps scattered throughout the house. The subways are a subtle theme throughout the house. Four years on, get a new refrigerator, and it requires the removal of some trim from the bottom edge of a cabinet, so I break out the Sawzall; small ornamentation get removed for a better appliance. The kitchen works.

The public rooms finished, the rest of the house goes the same way. I live in the house. It needs to please and to be functional. It has to aesthetically arrest me and engage me and be comfortable. It reflects my taste.

The office room gets two accent walls painted purple and a large black corner desk. The old futon goes in here: modern looking with a gray and black pattern: its designed as a couch for me when I work. As I play more music, the guitars slowly move in here like a set of sculpture. There are conflicting shelves of literary criticism and musical theory. It’s still not right. It’s identity-less, held together by artwork and force of will. I think when I can I might add a new room for music. Think about drywall and framing in the basement.

My old black bedroom furniture goes into the guest room, so it easily holds together. I decide to keep the room white as it’s a neutral color for guests and add white bookcases that I fill with my fiction. I know most of my guests are more likely to read fiction than poetry. I add one of two paintings by Michigan artist Joe Donna in it. (In my bedroom I’ll put another). There’s still a long narrow painting I need to hang above the bookcases. Hang black curtains, keep it minimalist. Every time I go in there, something nags at me that’s not right. It’s the light fixture…

The master bedroom is last. I buy new furniture, a hodgepodge of mid-century modern pieces. Some require stripping and staining. Hang a Miro litho. Hang the other Joe Donna painting. Add a bookcase. Buy too many books. Get a bigger bookcase. Change the light fixtures to match the preexisting chrome touches on the window valance. Paint two walls red and paint the window valances black. Keep the chrome decorations on them. Add gray curtains. Keep buying art, switching out.

The dresser tops are a mess, I know. I throw things out. I reorganize, things still get cluttered. I tell myself to do better. There’s an acoustic guitar I rarely play in the bedroom. My first electric guitar. A chrome and glass modernist sculpture I moved from the living room. (It makes so much more sense in the bedroom).

Last month, I visited the poet Nancy Mitchell. Saw how little space she kept between paintings on her walls. Think about the paintings in storage, the art I still want to own, consider the possibilities to decorate the walls of this space differently. It’ll never be done, I know. Every change, even the smallest, changes everything else around it. I think about the books I’ve written, how even in these finished poems, I’ve crossed some words out, written new words in.


 

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