Interior Decorating January/February 2011

Shade of Home

Reckoning with the ghosts of mum and pup— and their color choices
Leif Parsons

One year and many dollars ago, I decided to move back to the house I grew up in. I don’t have statistics for how many Americans are doing this, but it’s quite possible, in this economy, that even some recent college grads are. It’s also possible that for some parents, the words “Mom! Dad! I’m home!” no longer have quite the same heart-warming effect as before.

I hadn’t lived in the house since I was 13, before I went off to boarding school. That was in 1966, about the time I used to pedal my bike into town to buy the latest Beatles 45. So it’s been a while, but I can summon a memory for just about every square foot of the house and grounds. The tree Danny and I used to climb up to smoke cigarettes; the place on the beach where the seven-foot shark went for me; and the living room where, one cocktail hour, at age 10, I came downstairs and told the grown-ups, “President Kennedy has just blockaded Cuba.” I don’t think I’ve ever since caused conversation to stop quite so dead.

My original plan, after the last of my parents checked out and moved, so to speak, to the Big Upstairs, was to hold my nose and spend some money fixing it up so I could put it on the market. (Did I say “market”? Sorry, just going for an easy laugh.) The brokers who bothered to return my calls came, looked around, and, as if reading off an identical script, said, “Nice bones, but it’s kind of … dark.”

The house had almost burned to the ground 15 years before. My mother, a lady of excellent taste, had used the occasion to redecorate along a color spectrum ranging from chocolate—that is, dark chocolate, like the type that’s supposedly good for your heart—to red, a deep, deep red, like the national debt.

As striking as it was when she was finished, you needed a flashlight to find your way around—during the day. At night? Probably some weekend guests from the 1990s are still wandering around up there lost, looking like Gollum and hissing, “Precioussssss!” It finally dawned on me that women of a certain age—she was in her late 60s—are not especially keen on bright ambient light, even if this left the rest of us wearing miner’s hats and bumping into things.

So it was that I found myself on my hands and knees with my oldest buddy, Danny, crawling around the floor with paint chips. I make no claim to knowing anything about decor. My only aim was to—as the real-estate agents would say—brighten and lighten.

We said, “Well, let’s start with white. How wrong can you go with white?” It turns out that there are many, many versions of white. Danny and I fanned through Colonial White, Egg White, White Out, White Nights, Snow White, White Flight, Perry White, Teddy White, E. B. White, Hast Seen the White Whale. Somewhere out there amidst the amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties and fruited plain, a dedicated group of Americans are working day and night to come up with 4,000 different names for beige. If Isaac Newton had gotten his hands on a paint-chip wheel, the rainbow would consist of the following colors: Better Red Than Dead, William of Orange, Lemon Tree Very Pretty, How Green Is My Valley, Danube Blue, Mood Indigo, and Violet Hush. Danny and I finally settled on Ostrich Shell. Off White, basically, but it sounds more impressive.

I’d been told, or warned, that when you paint one room, not only will it look nice, but it will also make the room next to it look as if raccoons have been living in it for the past decade. Indeed, this was the case. So we had to paint that room too, which made the room next to it look like the raccoons had been using it as well for their nefarious raccoony purposes. Remember the domino effect? Forget Southeast Asia: it’s all about decor. We ended up doing all the rooms.

Which turned out to be another teachable moment, because if you make the inside look new, then the outside is going to look like the House of Usher. So that got painted, too. Then the basement. Why the basement, you ask? Well, if the upstairs and outside look nice, you can hardly have a basement that resembles an interrogation room at Abu Ghraib. The new basement is now bright Off White or Crème de la Crème or Milk of Magnesia. Whatever. Now when guests go down into it, they no longer expect someone to leap out, put a hood over their head, and water­board them.

In the end, I looked around and thought, Not bad. A person could live here. Danny said, “Your mom would be proud.”

I considered. She was a woman of very definite opinions, my mother.

“It’s possible,” I said. “It’s also possible that any night now, she’s going to appear at the top of the staircase in a nightgown, holding a candelabrum and pointing a finger, and saying, “Ec-ru, Brute?”

When, in the middle of the night, I go downstairs for a glass of milk, I make sure the hall lights are on full. Even so, it feels like home. And years from now, when my children are looking at these walls, scratching their heads and looking at paint chips, it’ll be me on the landing, in my boxers, holding the candelabrum and moaning, “Magenta Dream? You can’t be serious.”

Presented by

Christopher Buckley is the editor at large of ForbesLife magazine. His first book was Steaming to Bamboola: The World of a Tramp Freighter; his latest is Losing Mum and Pup, a memoir.

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