garden gnome

garden gnome

My husband just bought a garden gnome for our front yard. The gravity of this aesthetic decision cannot be overstated.

I grew up in a snobby New England town that looked like the love child between Norman Rockwell and a boat shoe — streets packed with hulking colonials wearing wraparound porches and tire swings swung over the branches of ancient oaks. Inside each home gleamed marble countertops and walls in shades of white, beige, and oatmeal.

Inside my childhood home, one bathroom was painted royal blue and over the sink was an orange mosaic mirror that my mom made herself out of bathroom tiles. My bedroom was hot pink overlaid with gold sponge painting — my mom’s choice. Downstairs, there was barely room for furniture. The rooms were crammed with eclectic art, including a pair of three-foot-long beaded lizards and a sculpture of a ladybug made from recycled scrap metal.

I always cringed a little when friends came over — as if the hodgepodge of our home design proved that my loud, Italian-Puerto Rican family didn’t belong in this WASPy part of Connecticut.

When I was 15, my parents let me move up to the attic, where I was finally allowed to choose my own paint color. After weeks of deliberation I picked Calla Lily White.

“How could you?” my mother gasped, as if I’d betrayed her. And maybe I had. Like any teenager, I needed to rebel, except my form of rebellion was to flee my mom’s flashy aesthetic and instead mimic the indistinguishable beige homes of my childhood frenemies.

The day I left for college, she waved goodbye with one hand while holding a can of lime green paint with the other, desperate to restore my bland teenage bedroom to its intended neon glory.

Five years later, Pinterest was founded, and I spent the next decade reading home design blogs, all of which promised that, with the right soft color palette and accessories from Anthropologie, my home would present me as a certain kind of woman: sophisticated, organized, graceful. Someone who belonged.

When my husband and I bought our first home, I became obsessed with making it Pinterest-perfect. I hired an interior designer whose work I found through a blogger I admired. She studied my Pinterest boards and in a few weeks had a photo realistic mock-up of my home, which she dubbed, a “cozy multi-purpose family nest with European cafe and British pub vibes.”

The result was everything I’d dreamed of: a house full of textured neutrals, with just enough pops of color to look “eclectic.” People always comment on the bright entryway filled with plants and the moody botanical wallpaper. While I can’t take credit for the choices, I liked the version of myself who lived here.
Naturally, when my mother offered to ship some childhood things to our new house, I told her to keep it all. I didn’t need my old collection of sea glass or the flower-shaped mosaic mirror we made together when I was 15 — the brass arched one I’d ordered from Rejuvenation would be arriving any day. I even relegated the shabby chic chalkboard my husband had used to propose to the back of our closet; its baby blue distressed frame didn’t match the vision I had for our home — or myself.

Then, this past December, my beloved grandmother died at the age of 98. Her aesthetic was nothing like my mother’s — she was my dad’s mom — but it had that same cluttered feeling I associated with the unfashionable. Porcelain collectibles crowded every flat surface and photographs of her grandkids covered the walls. Still, she was my favorite person, and after her funeral, my family traipsed back to her house where we were given a stack of color-coded Post-It notes. “If there’s anything you want,” my mother said, “put a Post-It on it and we’ll set it aside for you.”

To my surprise, I wanted to Post-It everything — the ugly felt door hanging that said Ho Ho Ho! and came with a little bell that rang when you walked into the house; her collection of bird mugs and the kitschy floral oil cruet. Could I fit her entire sewing cabinet in my suitcase? Could I transplant her kitchen wallpaper? Those faded yellow flowers feel as much a part of her as her halo of dyed-red curls. I can’t imagine it came from anyone’s brain but her own.

When I returned to Oregon that weekend, I looked around at my over-designed house and felt numb. What would my daughter, now seven, ever want to save from here? The mass-produced “oil painting” of a generic, faceless woman from West Elm? The wooden vase that couldn’t hold water? And why had I hung so many thrift store oil paintings of other people’s dead relatives and not a single family photo? I’d been so focused on making sure my house was conventionally beautiful that I’d left out all the stories.

And so I called my mother and asked her to send my sea glass collection after all. It now has its own shelf in my office, and it has inspired me to start collecting again. I went out and bought a very weird print of a Negroni salami because Negroni is my mother’s last name. My husband, who usually lets me take the lead when it comes to decorating, even got into the act, purchasing the garden gnome, of all things. “I’ve always wanted one,” he told me.

Instead of protesting, I named him Gunter. “Just don’t make our yard look like an old lady lives here,” I warned, as we placed Gunter on the edge of our retaining wall, tucked under a sword fern where he’d be eye level with children walking by.

“No, of course not,” he said. “He’s a tasteful gnome.” But once Gunter was situated, it struck me that he looked a little lonely.

“Just one more?” Elliot asked.

“Yeah, or maybe two,” I replied. “What’s so bad about an old lady’s house anyway?”

Marian Schembari is a writer living in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and daughter. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire. She has also written for Cup of Jo about getting diagnosed with autism as an adult, and her memoir, A Little Less Broken, comes out this September. You can pre-order it here, if you’d like.

P.S. Catherine Newman’s joyfully jumbled home tour, and 11 readers share their cozy spots at home.

(Photo by Carey Shaw/Stocksy.)