I grew up on the Massachusetts coast in a picturesque seaside town—the kind of Hollywood-ready, little town founded by Colonial settlers whose ships sailed in the wake of the Mayflower. Founders’ descendants still lived in the white-and-black Colonials lining both sides of Main Street, with spindle-legged furniture and touches of pewter. There were salt-stained homes with starfish décor near the harbor, and inland homes with floral upholstery and horse paintings. Our house was different.
A former summer home built in the 1920s for a wealthy Bostonian, our home sat toward the top of a hill above the harbor, with casement windows that swung open to let in the salty air, Spartan old chauffeur’s quarters tacked onto the garage, and just enough insulation to keep the original owner cozy on cool summer nights. We moved there in 1985, charmed by the house’s porches and molding, and intent on relieving it of the former owners’ anachronistic handiwork. When they left, they’d taken the bongo drums and carved wooden figurines once clustered around the brick fireplace, but we still had to contend with the dining room’s velvet flocked wallpaper, and the Jacuzzi room (a mid-’80s must-have), which teetered precariously over the back porch with a slate tile floor and a leaky four-person tub, all watched over by a papier-mâché parrot.
Mom eventually removed both the Jacuzzi and the parrot, much to her children’s chagrin, but she embraced the home’s character—its peeling paint and its aged loveliness. She painted and wallpapered, refreshed woodwork, and swapped in new light fixtures. The drafty windows stayed, as did the vintage linoleum countertops in the butler’s pantry.
Mom continued to layer in the old and the new, adding rugs and antiques sourced for a song at auctions and flea markets, and mixing in vintage beds, tables, and lamps that she’d been collecting since the ’70s. There were down pillows and patterned upholstery, crystal candlesticks and hand-thrown pottery, crumpled birds’ nests and windowsills full of beach rocks, all crowned by an oh-so-cool and era-appropriate custom neon sign that gave the beadboard-clad kitchen an electric pink glow.
“Eclectic” wouldn’t do my mother’s style justice. It’s artistic and inventive, full of well-designed things. She’s not snobby about provenance. If something’s well-made and visually interesting, she’ll buy it. Chips and cracks and other imperfections intrigue her rather than dissuade her. She’s drawn to tarnish and patina, furniture with stories and accessories with soul. And she’s always on the hunt, so our house was never static, never stuck with starfish or rooted in Colonial. It grew with us, reflecting the times and padding our memories with an ever-changing backdrop—the wabi-sabi of it all—with old silver and mangled bits of driftwood sitting cheek to jowl with our baby dolls and Matchbox cars.
Even sans parrot, my brothers and I knew that we had a good thing going. Our house had personality, coupled with killer ocean views from two-thirds of the rooms, and we took great pride in helping our parents care for it, piecing it back together as best we could on the weekends. We bonded while stripping wallpaper and painting ceiling beams. We joined our parents on day trips to other picturesque New England towns to traipse through little shops, picking up a picture frame here, a pepper mill there.
My parents sold my childhood home about five years ago to move into a more manageable—and less drafty—house, renovating an old summer cottage toward the top of yet another seaside hill. Mom’s style has evolved, and the spaces are more modern and streamlined, but the feeling of those rooms is just the same. Nothing’s fussy or too precious. Chairs are deep, tables are welcoming, and dinners are served on vintage dishes and eaten in candlelight, with a gnarled branch or two serving as a centerpiece. Mom designs homes that people want to spend time in.
Having grown up watching her feather our family’s nest—sometimes using actual feathers—I’ve come to believe, like she does, that our homes don’t just reflect who we are. They help shape us, literally and figuratively framing our views of the world outside. Mom taught me that buying a lamp can be an act of love, and setting a table can create a scene for lifelong memories. The stuff that we choose to surround ourselves with matters, and aesthetics are only the half of it.