When we moved into our house, I was in the sixth grade, and had moved eight times. We had lived in quarters (military housing) for the two years prior to my parents’ buying the house in which I would spend all of my adolescence.
The Ugliest House There Ever Was
This isn’t an Ugly Duckling Story about how my parents bought the most hideous house they could get a deal on, and then renovated it into something beautiful. No way- they did not have the time, nor the money. The house I grew up in is on a busy street in the Midwesternest town in all of the Midwest. Built in 1968, it was painted two tones of gray: gray shutters on gray vinyl siding. Brown shag carpet throughout. It had a swimming pool that was painted entirely blue- when you went swimming, the paint turned the bottom of your feet blue. My room was sponge painted teal, mauve, and purple, and finished with a wallpaper border featuring various types of shells.
I loved it.
The kitchen had yellow, lime green, orange, and white striped wallpaper, a vinyl floor scratched by heavy chairs, and yellow and white laminate countertops, all capped with brass candelabra-chandelier hanging from a dropped ceiling (so it rested, like, inches from the top of the kitchen table).
The rest of the house?
It wasn’t only distasteful, it wasn’t just outdated, it was ugly. And it stayed that way from the time I was 12 until the time I was 30.
My Mama’s Kitchen
After 25 years, my parents are getting around to renovating, but I remember the way it looked so well because I was so excited to live there. Quarters were small, and as with happens with Army brats, all my friends had moved away (or were going to). My 12 year-old self couldn’t believe I was going to get my own room, and a POOL (good fortune I attributed to my wishing on every shooting star I ever saw for a swimming pool in my backyard). It was an unbelievable financial stretch for my parents, but they went for it- and that home is like the cornerstone of our family.
What strikes me about their decision in retrospect is that they bought the house ugly. But I never heard them say (to this day) that it was “a good investment.” Their decision wasn’t based on, “Do we have the money for renovations?” Their decision was based on, “Do we have money for a down payment?” It was based on figuring out a comfortable life, in a house that was good for us: and what was good for us was not renovation potential or return on investment, it was that the house was close to our school, and sufficient enough to hold everyone.
At heart of my parent’s offensively ugly house was (and, well, is) my mother’s kitchen. That yellow and lime green kitchen, where the floor was perpetually sticky, and Shake and Bake pork chops or a Stouffer’s lasagna was always just coming out of the oven. There was always so much food. My mom isn’t Italian, but my maiden name is Negrelli, and my college friends that would visit eventually just started calling her “Mama Negrelli” because they never left not-stuffed. Her philosophy is, “Once you walk in my door, you are my guest…AND I WILL FEED YOU.”
“Who is in the Kitchen?” -My Dad’s Perpetual Question
We lived about a mile from our high school, so from May to September, the pool was never empty. It was the gathering place after school, and every holiday we had people who weren’t “family” join us. I am the oldest of four, and I could always count on walking down stairs and finding someone- either one of my siblings or one of their friends- to talk to or hang out with. My mom still relays a story about how my dad- who is stealthily quiet- walked down to the kitchen, and turned around and went right back upstairs to tell her, “There’s someone making soup in our kitchen.”
It was my sister’s friend. He came over to hang out during the time after school, before his evening extra-curricular practice, whether she was home or not. He wasn’t the only one. I loved getting home from somewhere and seeing one of my friend’s cars parked on the street in front of our house.
The house was always warm, because the door was opening and closing so much that keeping the Air Conditioner on was pointless. And also expensive.
Your Kids Won’t Care About Your Return on Investment
I wish I had remembered all of this through my own home-buying process. I was so focused on other, stupid things: on my making my home “an investment.” The amount of money we spent on subway tile and area rugs and getting that “look” was, dare I say it? Wasted. And the time? Wasted. And I love our home: I love our neighborhood, and the people we’ve met. But, man. When I browse Pinterest, I’m left with this feeling like I’m the only one in the world with linoleum floors and naked windows. It’s to just so hard to avoid, though, isn’t it? HGTV, Facebook, Instagram lifestyle experts.
I mean, really? A lifestyle expert? HOW IS THAT EVEN A THING?!
I have to remember that making our house a home doesn’t have to be a financial investment. We aren’t trying to flip anything, we’re just trying to settle down. Why is settling down- for a comfortable home to play with and love your family in- considered settling? My house is noise, crumbs, and shelves that hold a variety of crap- because I’m not “styling shelves.”
I hope that will make our house great is hopefully what my made my mother’s kitchen what it was- and it wasn’t what was on the walls or the floor or what the countertops were made out of. It was that our house was always open: and inside, you could always find a lot of laughter, a lot of love, and probably a Stouffer’s lasagna.