Designing for Mid-Life
It was time to say goodbye to my older daughter after moving her into her freshman dorm room at college. My husband would not let me get out of the car where I sat doubled over in grief. He would walk Frannie to her door alone to spare her my sorrow. My tears were no surprise. Separation, for me, has always felt more like a severing rather than a divide that can be traversed at appropriate moments. Back home, I wandered aimlessly, wondering how I would fill up the space Frannie left behind. This, too, was no surprise; I felt a hole when my mother threw out an old percolator when I was eight. What I hadn’t known was that lurking inside me was a Martha Stewart doppelganger. But Frannie’s departure triggered a circadian signal telling me it was time to dress my house for a new phase.
It started with the rug in the family room. Thirteen years earlier, it arrived from the factory already looking dull and defeated, perhaps sensing its fate in a home with three young children and a growing number of dogs. It greeted my return from taking Frannie to school with no bright forecasts for my future.
I bought a new rug, which I coddled, brushing its deep pile with my fingers, banning any liquid that could spill from its presence, protecting it from dogs searching for a place to dig. Not wanting to stain it with the past, I shed no tears for Frannie’s absence on that rug.
Each of Frannie’s departures after visits home launched me on another project—new couches to match the rug, refinished barstools to ring the adjacent kitchen counter, an assault on my closet. I filled bags with high-waisted Levi’s, maternity shirts that I kept thinking would work with leggings, blazers with steroidal shoulder pads. I sorted my skirts by season, my shoes by color, and my sweaters by pullover or cardigan.
I corralled my then 14-year-old daughter Nadia. “Let’s do your closet now,” I crowed. When we finished, I realized that, if I moved her dresser and bought a bookcase, the room would look cozier and have more storage space. Seeing my frenzy, Nadia’s twin brother Max barred me from his room.
I ventured into Frannie’s room rarely, not wanting to rouse any emotional dust bunnies. From her closet I took a sweatshirt, a soft cotton tee and a pair of leggings, not to toss but to wear—an alternative form of pregnancy that allowed me to carry my daughter’s essence on me rather than in me.
Then, as if to mock all my efforts, one of the dogs threw-up on the new rug. On my knees—with my rags, my club soda, and my Resolve—I started to cry. The scenario felt familiar. Thirty years earlier it was my husband who was upset over the damage my previous dog had done to our brand-new carpet in our first apartment. For John, home was an expression of his expectations; a successful man lives here, it would say. What could my rug say about me?
Before Frannie was born I had worked for over a dozen years in arts administration and as a professional fund raiser. From my office, I could see into my apartment a block away. When Frannie was a baby, the sitter would hold her up to the window and move Frannie’s arm up and down in greeting. After the viewing, I’d look back at my desk that couldn’t pretend wave and wonder what I was doing there. So I quit. It was summer and I laughed as Frannie splashed under the sprinkler at the park. I planned her first birthday party with the precision I had applied to gala benefits. I anchored myself with the weight of her sleeping body against my chest.
By autumn, when Frannie’s eyes danced in rhythm to the twinkling leaves, mine became flat. My identity had dulled. I got a new job.
Going back to work was like returning to a restaurant where you once had a chicken like you’ve never tasted before, but when you order it again it’s just chicken. Three months before giving birth to Max and Nadia I retired a second time. I slogged through the boredom of filling endless buckets with sand or the interminable telling of a dream, now certain that writing a grant proposal or explaining the percentage of overhead in a budget wasn’t enough to take me away from my children. I never asked myself what would be. Motherhood ultimately defined me and my home.
In its old incarnation, I rarely used the family room by myself. It was for games of Candy Land, art projects, or the 30th screening of Matilda. Then it became a place where the kids and their friends hung out after school. Then Max and Nadia went off to college and it was empty. So was my mind of what I was to do now.
It was a small disruption that changed the course of my days. The internet connection had stopped working in my office at home, so I set up my computer among the new rug, couches, and stools. I thought my move was temporary. But as I began to shape my time around a few not-for-profits on whose boards I had joined, my paperwork became a fixture on my kitchen counter. Next came a notebook and pencil, always within reach to write, not grant proposals, but essays and stories as I began to pursue a new career as a creative writer. I drew from the room’s echoes of the past which I wove into two books that chronicle my growth as a mother, a daughter, a wife, and a friend. Reclining on my couch, I prepare lesson plans and gather stories from others to share with my students, people like me who want to find meaning in the narrative of their lives.
Recently, I made two more changes to the décor. On a new coffee table with a glass top that threatened no little chins or foreheads, I placed scented candles, my books, my knitting, and my cups of tea. And I bought another rug; the prior, having adopted the mien of its predecessor, proved itself to be only an interim step toward my independence from the daily act of mothering. This latest one, bought only after all three children had moved, is made of wool with a touch of silk. So far, we are both living up to the expectations we have of each other.
Otherwise, my interior design career has peaked. My children all have their own apartments now. I wander the aisles of Ikea with them but mostly to keep them company as they furnish their own homes. I am not designing for their lives anymore. Only my own and that requires an examination of the rooms that reside within me, not those that I occupy.
Judith Hannan is the author of two books, Motherhood Exaggerated (CavanKerry Press), which chronicles her journey as a mother during her young daughter’s treatment for cancer, and The Write Prescription: Telling Your Story to Live With and Beyond Illness (Archer Lit), which is a guide patients for those who wish to write about the experience of illness. Her essays have appeared in such publications as The Forward, Narratively, Brevity, Cognoscenti, The Healing Muse, ZYZZYVA, and Opera News, among others.