Thursday, July 30, 2009


For many of us, home is connected to a place. That’s why my book selection for this week is the novel:

My Antonia

by Willa Cather

I read My Antonia in my twenties. By then, our brick Tudor was gone. I couldn't go back to it. Certainly not in the same way. Maybe this is why I found My Antonia's sense of place seductive, aching and as full of wonder about place as any place can be.

Take a look at this classic story set in Nebraska.

If you've already read it, tell me your thoughts. Did you connect with it or not? Name a book you love that evokes a powerful sense of place.

And an afterthought: In 8th grade, I hated the title, My Antonia. I had no desire to read it. I thought it sounded stuffy. Then I read the novel in my twenties and fell in love. I think grammar schools often over-push the classics before kids are emotionally ready to appreciate what they're reading.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Lawn Wars

Neighbors often stopped by to consult with my father--the gardener and caretaker of all green things--on how to grow geraniums, get rid of weeds, and make their lawns look like his.

You see, none of the houses on my street had a yard like ours. Our grass was soft as babies’ feet and greener than anyone else’s for blocks and blocks. Directly across from us, the white Colonial that needed a fresh coat of paint sat under tall shade trees, its lawn colorless and bedraggled, tired as the old terrier that slept there all summer long.

The neighbors next door to us, at the top end of the street, didn’t spend time in their garden either. Actually, they didn’t have a garden. They didn’t have a lawn. Though the family owned a steel scraps company and drove fancy cars—the husband exchanged his shiny Cadillac for a newer model every year—this neighbor’s yard was mostly dirt and tree roots.

But one summer, a flatbed truck appeared in the next door neighbor’s driveway carrying huge wheels of rolled up sod. In the course of a few hours, I watched several men unfurl the sod and lay it down in strips until the entire front yard was covered with a thick matting of green grass. I watched from the living room window. I simply couldn’t believe it.

That evening, the grumbling started in our house.

"Ha ha,” father said. He was Hollywood handsome with dark hair and eyes. “They think they can have an instant lawn? Wait a few weeks. Who’s going to take care of the weeds when they start showing?”

He had a point. My father was unpredictable, but when it came to gardens, I could rely on his knowledge and expertise.

At the dinner table, we kept talking about it.

“It doesn’t look good. It looks fake. It’s not a real lawn,” I said to make him and me feel better.

“Oh, I’m not worried,” he said with a flourish. “I told you. They have to take care of it. We’ll see how it looks in a few weeks.”

For someone who lacked patience, who was often short-tempered and mad, it amazed me how gentle he could be around horticultural things. When he got wild in the yard, it wasn’t a savage kind of wild. Out there he wore loose fitting, dirt-stained pants and didn’t care how he looked. (Weekday mornings, he wore custom-tailored suits to the office, manicured his nails, and expected us to be well-dressed.) In his garden, he dug and clawed at the earth until he was soaked with sweat, his hair no longer straight but curly and happily unkempt.

"How could anyone purchase a yard?" I wondered aloud as if it were a moral question.

“Bah! We’ll see what they do with it,” Dad said. “It takes work to grow a garden.”

I knew he was right. I watched him tend to our garden almost every day. And I watched how the garden tended to my father. If he was irritable, he could walk out into the yard and his plants wouldn’t yell back. When he swore at the lawn mower for not starting up, his temper dispelled faster in the fresh air.

“It doesn’t look that good,” I said again. In truth, that neighbor’s instant lawn depressed me. Could it be that my father’s labor was for naught?

I mean. Sure. We all saw that the instant lawn looked nicer than before—much nicer than the dirt and root infested plot that had once made our pristine yard shine brightest; But I didn’t want it to equal our yard. Our yard was hand-grown from seed, mowed with devotion week after week by my father.

Over the next several weeks, you can be sure we all kept a close watch on the neighbor’s lawn to see how it would hold up. Shameful to admit, but I felt joyous when the first batch of sod started turning yellow and brown.

“Dad! Did you see the grass? It’s got yellow patches. It’s turning yellow!” I said jumping up and down as if I’d won an award.

“No kidding?” he said, smiling. I could see his satisfaction removing every line in his face.

Within two weeks, either the Universe agreed with us or wanted to teach somebody a lesson because every strip of the neighbor’s new sod had turned a sickly yellow.

“It’s infested. Got some kind of bug,” my father said. “Didn’t I tell you? It’s not easy to have a lawn like mine. You have to pay attention. You have to mow it. Weed it. Water it. It doesn’t grow by itself you know. These things take work. Devotion. Love.”

The neighbors didn’t give up. Even though their second attempt at laying down sod took hold, everyone in my family knew the truth: buying a front yard didn’t count no matter how good it appeared on the surface. Home grown was better. Always and forever. Our neighbors had opted for the easy way out.

Friday, July 24, 2009


I lost my childhood home but Jeannette Walls never had one. She lived in cars, on the street, in tents, in shacks. This is an astonishing story of a family and the children who survived their often insane, yet insanely creative and brilliant parents. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (Scribner, 2005).

If you've read it, tell me your thoughts. Did you want to strangle the mother? the father? or embrace them?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Losing A Childhood House

Our family fought a lot but one thing we agreed upon: we loved our brick Tudor house. Set on one half-acre of lawns, trees and gardens, my house on 14 Scarsdale Road was my kingdom, a place where I spent my entire childhood, where my father planned to stage our garden weddings in the backyard. ( I have two older sisters and a younger brother.) Built in 1937, the house sat on a knoll on a shady, dead end street in Newton, MA, a suburb west of Boston.

Every spring, I watched my father’s Broadway show—not in New York—his spectacle took place in our back yard.

In April, I couldn’t wait to see whether the two starring crab apple trees would outdo themselves this year, filling every bough and twig with blossoms. Would the purple, white and pink phlox that my father planted along the borders of the yard and around the big oak tree deepen and brighten? Would the dominant pink phlox overtake the gene recessive purple ones?

My father’s flower show performed every day in May and extended for weeks into June, the colors gaining momentum until whites and purples and pinks flowed like rivulets through the front, side and backyards amassing to one thrilling river of colors and scents. By June, millions of petals flew from the trees and covered the lawn like confetti.

Inside my house, life wasn’t as pretty. Would I find evidence of rage like the time I walked in to find magazines, newspapers and letters scattered across the kitchen floor because my moody father didn’t like our kitchen countertops covered in paper piles? (We had a live-in black maid who kept our professionally decorated house dust-free, floors polished, silverware untarnished, counter tops clean, and dirty dinner dishes washed and put away.)

Would I learn that my younger brother had thrown something at his teacher? Or that my middle sister was grounded again because she hadn’t done her homework? Or that our maid of three months had absconded with her boyfriend, fed up with the life of cleaning homes of rich people? ( Maids came and left our house about once every six to twelve months.)

On the upside, I spent many evenings after dinner singing around the Chickering upright piano with Mom and my sister, Lynne. Mom could play anything: Beethoven, Jazz, pop, Broadway. She was born with perfect pitch and large, piano hands.

The antique lamps next to the couch and the piano’s reading spotlight created a glow in the living room at night, like a well-tuned theater set. The living room was dressed in French, country blue carpet, blue toile drapes that matched the blue toile upholstered couch. On this home stage, Lynne and I sang harmonies, our voices gaining strength and vibrancy with each refrain.

Tonight, tonight, The world is wild and bright
Going Mad
Shooting sparks into space

“We should start a traveling singing group, like the Trapp family,” Mom said, her fingers deftly moving up and down the keyboard, her foot tapping the pedals, her shoulders leaning into the rhythms.

In such moments, I believed my house would be like this forever: full of music and flowers, polished, the envy of others.

Not to be.

During my high school years, my father lost his footing in the family shoe business, following a series of events that, in the end, he couldn’t control. Ultimately, a massive dock strike in 1970 did him in; his entire inventory of shoes for the year trapped on ships. He might as well have tossed those leather-soled wingtips into the harbor like the tea in Boston’s infamous tax rebellion.

My parents put the Tudor up for sale to avoid bankruptcy. They withdrew their membership from the country club.

With my two older sisters already out of the house, my younger brother and I heard my father groaning in the morning, saw his face twisted with disbelief as he headed out the kitchen door each day to watch his business—his unsinkable Titanic—careening to the bottom of the sea.

I no longer lived in the house when Mom and Dad moved with my brother into a plain, narrow townhouse with thin walls in a less toney neighborhood. The Tudor sold in 1971, in a down market for less than $100,00. Today (despite the current real estate fiasco) it is worth close to a million dollars. The double loss of house and business plunged my father into thoughts of suicide and a decade long depression, my mother into an emotional deep-freeze.

I plunged, too, having fled to a grim boarding house to escape the pain. Decades later, I'm still searching for my true home.

What about you?

Monday, July 20, 2009

One Windowsill

Ever wondered why it can take years to get to a particular house chore? I certainly have.

Maybe it has to do with change.

I live in a 100-year-old building, and many things need updating, the windowsill next to my kitchen sink, for instance. Covered in layers and layers of paint, it was chipped. Ugly. Stained. Every time I went to pour a glass of water, rinse a plate, or wash a pint of strawberries, I saw that caked up windowsill. I’d been looking at it for eleven years.

Yes. Eleven years!

It needed to be scraped and re-painted, but I had a lot of reasons why I didn’t want to start with all that. For one, I knew I needed to use paint remover and paint removers scare me. They have warnings about noxious fumes and chemicals that remind me of nasty and predatory things from my past.
(Maybe it’s even scarier how I let the past control me. )

Thirty years ago, I used paint remover to strip an old, wooden desk. Following instructions on the back of the container, I wore gloves. I kept the windows open for proper ventilation. I think I wore a mask--all to protect against those list of ingredients on the can that said they could lead to bodily harm.

Not long after that little project, I found out I had a serious blood disease (Aplastic anemia). I don’t believe I got the disease from that paint remover, but I've never been able to completely rule out the possibility. The connection gripped my mind.

Meanwhile, 30 years later, this windowsill was really bugging me.

Nowadays, we have non-toxic alternatives. A short trip to my local hardware store, and I found a paint remover that was "green". It cost $20.00 for a pint-sized container--pricey--but I decided to go for it.

This time around, the gluey goop didn’t have that stinging, suffocating odor like the one I used before—more like a mild, sweet smell that I remembered from elementary school art classes.

The old paint on the sill was inches thick (okay, slight exaggeration, maybe half an inch thick); I had to reapply the goop three times. As each layer gave way to another, I wondered: who painted this color and why? How long did each layer last? How many more layers are there? Why did someone choose mustard yellow, blue or green? After several hours, I scraped that sill down to the original wood, then I let the sill dry out for a few days.

Next, I applied two coats of primer and two coats of semi-gloss white. I’m planning to put a final, glossy white finish on it, but I’m going to let the sill rest for a bit.

Let the windowsill rest? How come?

I think I’ve asked a lot of this windowsill, stripping away 100 years of history in two days. It’s been relieved of all those dried up protective layers, but if someone did that to me, I’d need some time to recover, too.

Got a house-related chore you've put off for years? Tell me why...

Friday, July 17, 2009

Every Home Needs Books!

A home without books is, in my opinion, an incomplete home. So every Friday, I’m going to recommend a book that you can check out of the library, buy at the bookstore, or put on your to-read list. Books need homes and homes need books. It’s that simple.

My husband built this bookcase in a weekend. It was one of the first things he did when we moved to where we live now. At one point, we’d moved so often, our books remained unpacked in boxes and stacked in various basements. After awhile, I started to feel as if we’d left our beloved pets locked up and abandoned in dark cages.

So when we got to Brookline, my husband spent the afternoon laying down the frame on the floor and when it was in one piece, he raised it up like a Shaker house building. This bookcase is in my office and takes up an entire wall. It is one of my happiest pleasures. It gives me joy everyday. It’s a little messy. It still needs paint but I love it. It was truly made with care and love. Thanks, hubby.

Now you need to check out this book:
The Big House A Century in the life of an American Summer Home by George Howe Colt (Scribner, 2003). A beloved house is a launching pad for Colt’s story about a blueblood Boston family and lifestyle over many generations. With growing expenses, will the family be able to keep the house? Can a house cause nervous breakdowns and family rifts? Read it and find out.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The houses we leave behind

Yesterday, I was walking in my old neighborhood in Newton, MA, and I passed a house that I think of as “Ginny Hyde’s house.” It’s a lovely wood shingle house with Dutch colonial lines. I knew this house as an 8-year old child. The thing is, Ginny hasn’t lived here for more than 30 years. A close friend of my mother’s, she moved with her husband to Florida decades ago. This past year, she passed away. She was in her 80s. She was a lovely, ebullient woman with a strong, upbeat personality. As a child, she was one of my favorite adults.

I have no idea how many people have since occupied her house, and I don’t think it will ever matter. For me, that house will always be Ginny Hyde’s house along with memories of what it looked like inside, the memory of who I was at 8-years old, and of course, Ginny.

It’s like a strand of DNA has mapped that experience and stored it forever inside me in the shape and vision of a house.

Though I didn’t spend a whole lot of time in this house, I felt the pull of the past and was reminded, again, of how strong it can be, like a tide that goes in and out. Maybe the heart is another kind of moon tugging at these memories, lifting them up and sending them back under depending on what’s going on in our lives.

Houses will do that to us. We project our hopes and great expectations on these structures that stand witness to our days and nights, our habits, our most private moments.

Walking past Ginny's house is an easy memory for me, not fraught with ambivalence. I've got plenty of that where I live right now.

--which brings me back to the comment “anonymous” made in response to my post about favorite things (see July 13 post). Anonymous said how difficult it can be to leave a home, and the desire to go back a source of ongoing pain. I also heard from a few others offline. One person said she didn’t like her house growing up, another person said she hates the house she’s living in now.

I’m here to say that these feelings of discomfort about where we live or lived are not uncommon—at all—but they are signals we should listen to. I’m also here to encourage you to do something about that discomfort. Start with something small.

By the way, here’s another little factoid about hermit crabs: they can be quite picky about the shells they prefer.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Favorite Spot

We live on the top floor of a three story 1910 building in an urban town next to Boston. (See the photo at the top of the July 10 post.) I love the view from my office windows.

Up here, I can survey my street, see the life around me or get lost in the maze of leaves and trees (I tried taking a few pictures here but they don't do justice to the feeling of leafiness, sun and shade at this time of year.)A squirrel built a summer nest in the crook of the maple outside my window. I spent some time the other day watching him (or her) running up a limb, chewing off a twig of leaves, and scurrying back down to add to the nest. (Again, I tried to capture this in the close up photo. You can sort of see some leaves hanging from the tree's crook.)

It’s also where I listen to the nighthawks diving for bugs in the evening. Their pulsing screeches echo between the brick buildings. From this vantage point, I can see who’s walking their dogs in the morning, or taking the groceries in, or hustling their children into their cars. It’s where I can see the sun and the moon set, and it’s where I can pretend I’m elevated—above gravity, a little closer to the sky, which gives me a great sense of comfort.

Since I do believe our childhood homes influence our later choices about where we live, I realized that feeling “elevated” is important to me. Growing up, my bedroom was on the second floor and as a teen, I moved to an attic bedroom on the third floor. In both bedrooms, I spent many hours leaning out the window, which made me feel at once bird-like, and safe—safe to have my private thoughts and safe to consider the large questions of the universe: where did stars come from, what kind of life did other girls live? And ultimately, what kind of life would I live?

How does your favorite spot relate to your childhood home?


Friday, July 10, 2009

Come on In

Welcome to Home Confessions, a place where you can share your joys, sorrows, frustrations, hopes, and desires about home.

Home and how people live is a subject that fascinates me. In fact, I’ve been writing about other peoples’ homes for years (about eleven actually), for the Boston Globe, Coastal Living, New England Home, Boston Common and others.

I’ve written about two-bedroom condos and 14,000 square foot estates. I’ve covered window boxes and lighting, but one thing I’ve learned over the years, no matter who you are or where you live or how big or small your space, we all yearn to have a home.

If you grew up in the States, I’m willing to bet that you’ve moved a few times in your lifetime. Either you’ve rented, bought, sold, coveted a place you couldn’t afford, or worried about losing the one you already owned. I’ve moved a lot—about 14 times in the last 30 years (yes, really); kind of like a hermit crab moving in and out of different shells.

Here’s a fun fact about hermit crabs: did you know that the shape of the hermit crab’s most vital part—its stomach—is determined by the shape of the shell it once inhabited as a juvenile?. I think the same is likely true for humans. What do you think?

The other reason for the title—the confessions part of it—is about revealing who we are by looking at where and how we live. As I see it, our dwellings are vessels that contain and shape our personal stories. That’s what I hope we’ll be sharing (and confessing) here.

I’d like to start by encouraging you to post a story about a favorite spot in your house. Tell me why it makes you feel good. I’ll tell you about one of my favorite spots in my next post. Feel free to send me photos. I’ll post those, too. Send photos to: jessicakeener1(at)gmail(dot)com.

Thanks for stopping by. My door’s always open.