On a cold, sunless day in January, I took down the festive holiday garlands and tucked away the woodland ornaments. The house looked off-kilter, bare in some places and cluttered in others. I rearranged tabletops and pushed furniture from room to room. An hour later, as I surveyed the scratched floors, I knew what was wrong: I'd lost my decorating mojo.
The Force had never been strong with me, but I had, at least, enjoyed tinkering. Now, I couldn't even do that. I felt like an old flashlight battery, the kind that wouldn't hold a charge.
I began composing flat-lays and vignettes, fiddling with balance, texture, proportion, and color, figuring out what worked and what failed.
With a childlike hope, I waited for inspiration to shine out of the darkness. But is creativity that simple?
My grandmother, Mimi, was the decorator in the family. "If you want to create something pretty, you must first be willing to create a heap of ugly," she used to say. Her design secret was simple: she told stories. She had a Hummel collection, and on a tiered table she arranged the figurines just so--the goose girl strolled by a boy with an umbrella, and I could almost hear her telling him not to be afraid of the storm, that it would pass. On the far wall, a library table held books and Italian pottery. A teacup collection blazed with color on the kitchen shelves, and china teapots were lined up in the cupboard. She loved bone china, Fiestaware, and anything with flowers. Opening her linen closet was a delight because each shelf resembled a garden, colorful yet orderly.
"When a room tells a tale," Mimi said, "it follows its own rules--and pays no attention to trends and styles."
As I began to work, I told myself a story.
It's a sunny, 70 degree day in February. Ella wanders around her house, stopping in front of the Valentine's Day bouquet that her children had sent from the florist. Her babies are grown, living all over the world, doing this and that, but she can almost see them running through the field--Katie, her eldest girl, is a lawyer in Seattle and resembles a hydrangea, cheery and round faced, always thirsty for love; Bett, the middle girl, is a sous chef in San Diego. She's built like an iris--slender and upright, nervous and loud, her hair dyed purple and a ring in her dainty nose; and her boy, Jackson, is an historian in England, slump-shouldered like a tulip, afraid to look a person in the eye, but he knows everything there is to know about the Plantagenet kings.
If she keeps her hands busy, she won't have time to think. She hurries outside, and her apron flies up, snapping in the breeze. Is winter really over? she wonders, bending closer to a budding spirea. If the temperature plummets, what will happen to her garden? Tiny, tender green leaves dot the hydrangeas and butterfly bushes. Well, she can't control nature. But she can put sheets over the bushes if a cold spell hits. She'll do what she can.
On her way out of the garden, she stops by the shed. Soon she'll sweep away the cobwebs and gather her clay pots. She'll plant zinnia seeds. And by the door, she may put in a new lavender bed. She has gardened all her life--that's how she kept the family going after Renny died. Each summer, she ran a little vegetable stand out by the road, and, of course, she'd cleaned for Mrs. Jasper. But it was the garden that had sustained them. She remembers snapping beans, making blackberry jam, canning tomatoes. The decades flitted by so fast. Too fast. One day, her babies were helping her shuck corn, and the next they were grown and gone. Yet they come back when Ella looks at her flowers.
As Mimi used to say, "Decorating mojo is overrated. Just tell a story."