My Mother Designed Every One of My Homes
(In The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater, essayist Alanna Okun explores life truths learned through crafting. Here, an excerpt from the newly published book.)
Growing up, I didn't fully appreciate the magnitude of my mom's ability to make a home. Our house was nice, but it also just was. She inherited my grandma's penchant for vases of feathers and bowls of orbs; the living room in particular is full of tchotchkes that, if you stare long enough, are truly bonkers: a large brass pear with a keyhole in the middle, a ladder that leads ... nowhere. She prefers understated palettes (you can't possibly know how many shades of taupe there are in the universe until you've spent forty-five minutes with my mom at Benjamin Moore) and is a genius at getting furniture retailers to sell her floor models at a deep discount. But there's nothing fussy about her taste; one of her great joys is when we're all clustered around the granite island in the kitchen, or draped over one another on the giant couch in the sunroom. Her even greater joy is when we all go to sleep and she can have those rooms to herself and her design magazines. For a while, she worked for an architect, and then went on to consult on home renovations, doing for other people what she'd already done for us.
And she was there to oversee the design of each one of my homes, no matter how short a time I'd be there. She'd help me figure out what I needed to buy (and usually wind up paying for it), sketch out floor plans on napkins and in newspaper margins, and drive me and all my earthly possessions up and down the East Coast. She would construct Ikea furniture, drill holes in walls that were essentially cardboard-covered concrete, and disguise hideous light fixtures or school-issued furniture that we weren't allowed to just get rid of.
"Whoa," a friend said upon walking into my room junior year of college, the first time I had my very own single. "This is, like, a home."
It was. My mother had stayed for two days, sleeping on an air mattress she'd brought from Boston. The room had been a disaster, all the furniture pushed aside in order to make space. I'd gotten annoyed with her; there wasn't enough room for both of us to work, so I stood by and watched as she measured and marked and nailed her way through each task.
"It looks fine to me," I said, seven or eight times.
"I'll be done soon," she would reply breezily. I left and went down the hall to see my friends, and to whine that my mother was a maniac.
When the room was finished, she called me back in and I cried. The dusty red curtains we'd picked out together fluttered in the late-summer wind; the four light fixtures meant to replace the glaring overhead glowed softly; the two strange paintings of pears I'd found at Ikea hung side by side like they were displayed in a gallery. I cried because it was just mine, and because she had been the one to make it so. That my mother could come into this space with a few disparate things I'd kind of sort of liked a little and create a home so uncannily mine — that was what did it. My room was proof that I was loved.
She did it again when I got my first apartment in New York, and then again when I moved to my own place. (I still have the curtains and the pears.) She did it for Moriah (my sister) in her dorm rooms and in her apartments off campus in St. Louis, and for Matthew (my brother) just ten minutes away from our house in Boston. When we got the place in Rhode Island, my mother would spend her weekends out there, using the bathrooms at Town Hall and Walmart because the water wasn't yet turned on. She painted and rearranged and picked out a collection of furniture and tchotchkes that are just this side of nautical: no lobsters wearing sailor hats, but a whole bunch of knots. Each of these homes is like her — warm, open, practical with a few quirky touches — but they all feel different, reflective of those of us who live and grow there. Home always felt so natural, so effortless, that I didn't appreciate how much work went into making one until I started to build my own.
I spent a large part of my first year living alone pleading for my mother to come back to my apartment and help me install the new curtains she'd given me for Christmas. The ceiling was too high, I didn't own a level, I was afraid I'd screw it up — I whined and I bargained. She promised she'd come visit me in the spring for my birthday, but then Moriah moved back home and was having too hard a time to be left alone; then my grandma got sick. Then it was July and then August and the curtains were still folded underneath my bedside table.
I started asking her about it once a week, even though I could feel myself being bratty, missing the point: when are you coming, why did you say you would if you didn't mean it, don't you love me enough to bring your drill and yourself for just a day or two?
This was not a new dynamic for us. "You promised," I muttered (or yelled) throughout my childhood. "It's not fair." That was the flip side of my mother's enduring care — the smallest, ugliest part of me thought I had to stake a claim on it to make sure there would always be enough. I wanted to earmark a chunk of her time, keep a tally, know for certain that no matter how old I got or how capable of handling my own problems, I could always call her up and she'd be there in minutes. Because the truth is, of course, that while her capacity for love is infinite, her time and energy do have limits. When Moriah started struggling with school and her mental health, it was my mom who flew out to St. Louis month after month; when my grandma started to fade, my mom was by her side.
My mom has always kept all of her important promises, despite my whining to the contrary. When she couldn't come through (which usually consisted of nothing more than being late to pick me up from musical rehearsal when Moriah had tennis and Matthew had guitar lessons), it was because she had so many other people and creatures to care for. She spends so much of herself building us up — our spaces, our creativity — that I sometimes worry there's not enough left over for her own use. I want everything for my mother, but I also want everything from her. It only recently occurred to me, years later, that I can hang curtains myself.
And in the fall, just a month after her mother's funeral, my mom did come to visit. She drilled and hammered, cleaned each slat on the blinds, and installed insulating plastic over the windows before she hung the curtains at last. They bring the whole room together.
Alanna Okun is a writer, editor, and crafter. She's currently a senior editor at Racked, and has written for publications including BuzzFeed, Brooklyn Magazine, and the Hairpin, and appeared on the Today show,Good Morning America, NPR shows, and many other local and national television and radio programs. Alanna lives in Brooklyn with her pet snail and a lot of yarn.
Excerpted from The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater by Alanna Okun. Copyright © 2018 by Alanna Okun. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. All rights reserved.