Stories from middle America

I’ve carried a lot of my parents’ mindset about home decor into my own adulthood.

If I’m not replacing something that’s damaged or badly stained, the guilt is very real. But I already have this, even though I really don’t like it. But it still works, even though it’s kind of shabby looking. But his mom painted that, so I can’t paint over it.

Remember my guest room? A month ago, it still had my comforter set from college, my bedroom furniture I painted in high school, and a rather dreary rug I picked up on clearance at Nebraska Furniture Mart.

Fixing up that room for Air BnB has proven to be tougher and more emotional than I would have ever guessed. I’ve wanted to throw up my hands and say, “Screw this!” on several occasions. But two things have helped me put on my big girl pants and power through:

  1. The room doubles as my office. I’m in there between six and 10 hours a day, so I better damn well like it.
  2. Jessica took out a ton of the guess work for me. Having specifics spelled out for me eased a lot of my anxiety.
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Focus on what’s good

Instead of focusing on stuff that made me anxious (am I being wasteful? Is this frivolous? Why do I need things to be pretty, dammit?), it was encouraging to focus on the room’s good points. When I let myself come up for air, I found a few things that I loved about the room already:

  • Natural light. The guest room/office gets the best light in the house. It feels airy and peaceful all day long.
  • The wall color. A super pale olive that I love, the paint helps the room feel bigger than it is.
  • Neutral bedding.By the time Jessica peeked her head in, I had managed to say goodbye to my college comforter set. The new bedding doesn’t scream “Hello! I’m here!” when I’m in video meetings.
  • Heirloom Samsonite suitcases. They still have my great-uncle’s name and address in the tags, which I think is an awesome touch of the past.
  • A computer chair with personality. I found a pale, wooden computer chair on Craigslist and instantly gave away my huge black office chair.
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The trick was to let these elements shine through without detracting from the room’s dual purpose (guest room + office) and without massively redoing everything (not good for the bank account, not good for my mental well being).

Get rid of what’s holding you back

The trouble with holding onto things out of guilt is that it’s tough to view them objectively. It’s hard to curate a room when you’re seeing “she’d get mad” or “bad purchase” instead of simply “ugly rug” or “tiny lamp.” It helps to get feedback from someone who doesn’t see the extra baggage.

Jessica helped me pinpoint some specific things that were holding the room back from the peaceful, airy feeling I wanted:

  • The rug. The dark color sucked the life out of the room, and it was too large. It also didn’t vacuum well and had a contemporary, geometric pattern that didn’t mesh with the 1930s cottage thing.
  • The wall art. A couple pieces were too small for the wall space, and another piece had a dark, outdated matting and frame.
  • The pillows. Old and flat, they didn’t look welcoming at all.
  • The bedside lamp.Too small for the corner and kind of the same color as the wall, it got lost quickly.

Realize the power of tiny fixes

It’s all well and good to point out things that have to go in your life. I still needed some pointers to make sure I didn’t just fill the room back up with “this was on clearance” or “I have this thing in the attic.” After some gentle prodding from Jessica, here’s what I introduced back into the room:

  • A mirror. Larger than the previous wall art, the mirror is still simple and not so contemporary that it feels at odds in an 80-year-old house.
  • A new rug. This handwoven silk rug was definitely a splurge piece. It adds an awesome feeling of “This is my power office,” rather than “Here’s the random corner where I’m online all day.”
  • A larger lamp. I was afraid that a taller lamp would overpower the twin bed, but Jessica insisted I wouldn’t regret it. The large white shade pops nicely against the neutral green wall.
  • New pillows. A couple new shams and a large decorative throw pillow are making me side-eye my master bedroom now.
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There’s still more I could do, of course. Some 95-inch curtains wouldn’t go amiss, and I’d like to redo the matting and frame on that one art piece. The hub and router for the internet are still an unsightly mess of wires that I haven’t figured out yet.

But I already feel more relaxed walking in here every morning. I’d be proud to offer it to any guest. Guilt-free.

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“I’ve got a great idea. Let’s put our house up on Air BnB!” He was all but glowing, he was so proud of his idea.

I smiled, screaming inside. Do you know how much work that’ll take?! My fellow freely admits that he has trouble getting rid of stuff, while I dislike things without a place to be. Don’t get me started on duplicates unless you have a few minutes.

We do actually have a small guest room. It also pretends to be an office on some days and my closet on others. You might call it a junk room, and I wouldn’t correct you. We also have a loft, an open floor space upstairs that does indeed have a comfortable queen-size bed — as well as all of our holiday decorations, random computer parts, and my husband’s sprawling art projects.

As he was contemplating where we’d stay while we had Air BnB-ers in our home, my eyes were glazing over. We’ll need a quarter million Rubbermaid tubs, I’ll have to clean the fridge, our windows have never been washed… Then there’s the fact that we still have a lot of second-hand furniture (and not the cute vintage kind), and the linens on the guest bed are the ones I used in college. I was really into animal print.

Animal print guest room

Behold, my college aesthetic. Except for the dresser, which I painted myself when I was in high school.

Let’s just say that setting out a bottle of wine and some flowers are the least of our worries.

But I’m rolling up my sleeves. We had a chat about, okay, realistically, this is what it’s gonna take to get this very lived-in, rather second-hand home ready to be a hotel alternative. We’re doing this, you guys.

Of course, we’re also doing this with some help from Birdhouse. Jessica will — thank goodness — be stepping in with some pointers so I don’t end up sobbing in a corner somewhere clutching animal print.

Showin some love with my parents.

My mom and dad arrived at my house before I got off work.
“Well, I can’t be home until about 5:30,” I had said in a phone call.
“We’ll probably be there at 3,” was my mom’s breezy response.
I smiled inside and promised to leave the back door unlocked.

About once a year, my parents make the 10- or 12-hour trek from Indiana to Omaha just to hang with my husband and me for a long weekend. That brings the total number of times I see my parents annually to about three. I love my family dearly and playing host is one of my very favorite things, so naturally I look forward to this. I get clean sheets on the guest-room bed, I think of a few restaurants they might appreciate, and I make a pitcher of sweet tea for Dad.

However — you knew there was a however — each visit emphasizes the fact that I’m entering into a very different relationship with my parents. My parents are aging, and so am I. It’s introducing a few new challenges. What exactly is my role when I host my parents as an adult in my own home?

Let’s start with the innocuous stuff, by which I do mean stuff.

My family historically has had a bit of magpie in our lineage. Most of us like stuff. I was fortunate enough to live with a roommate after college whose housekeeping habits were positively sterile. I realized that not being surrounded by piles of things was calming, and I try to keep my house kind of the same way now. Not minimalist by any stretch, but everything better damn well have a place to be.

When my parents visit, our comfortable-but-small house feels the addition of new stuff quickly. For about four days my table will be covered with travel mugs and baggies of snacks. The floor will be home to random things like boxes of my grandmother’s 12-piece dinner set and antique chairs salvaged from an abandoned farmhouse. I’ll have to clear space on the countertops to prepare dinner, and the small table in the bathroom will hold everything from a paper-cup dispenser to wet wipes. My parents do not travel light.

Granted, I was excited about the dinner set and chairs, so toss that blame at my door.

I suppose I could spend those four days letting the chaos that I’m no longer used to stress me out. Instead I promise myself I’ll do a once-over of the house before they leave in order to minimize the size of the package I’ll have to mail to Indiana in a week. It’s absolutely worth it to see Mom and Dad, but it does reaffirm that my lifestyle is diverging from theirs.

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Speaking of diverging lifestyles, let’s talk about religion and politics. Actually, I don’t, not while my parents are visiting. As an adult growing comfortable in her own skin and her own beliefs, I’m still coming to terms with how to handle those conversations with Mom and Dad in my home. On their most recent visit, my dad bowed his head at our first meal together, and I paused for just a moment before I did the same.

I don’t do this anymore, came the thought. I genuinely do not live like this anymore. Does that mean I’m pretending right now? Or am I just being respectful? Am I avoiding a conversation? Am I scared?

I’m still gnawing on that bone, if I’m honest. In their home, I bow my head for prayer with everyone else. I smile politely and silently when someone claims a religious belief or a Fox News bulletin to be fact. So when the tables are turned, when they’re guests in my home, shouldn’t I feel free to be every bit as authentic in my own home as they are in theirs?

For the duration of my parents’ recent visit, I chose to maintain the same behavior in my home as I do in theirs. Until something drastic happens, that’s probably what I’ll continue to do. Is it more important to assert my adulthood? My ownership of a home? My independence?

Meh, I don’t think that’s what hospitality is.
I don’t think that’s what welcoming looks like.
My parents are careful not to ask too many involved questions about my beliefs these days, which indicates that they know something’s changed. Sure, they make some passive aggressive remarks, but I do too. If they want to say a prayer with everyone before a meal, I have room for that in my home.

Which leaves me space for the important things when it comes to hosting my parents as an adult.
Like telling my dad about the running trail nearby for his half-marathon training.
Like learning that Mom prefers a certain kind of coffee creamer these days.
Like wondering when the hell did Dad stop eating beef and, well, I suppose we can have chicken tonight instead of steak.
Like listening to Mom worry about Grandpa.
Like getting advice from Dad about how to build our new retaining wall.

Like offering my parents a comfortable, welcoming respite in a gracious, open-minded space.

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Dinner Gathering 1

At about 7 p.m. every Thursday night, I set down my laptop and begin a weekly ritual. I have friends coming over for dinner—my very favorite thing—and it’s time to prepare.

The ritual begins with a rough-and-tumble tidy-up. If I’ve learned anything from this weekly night of coziness over the past couple years, it’s how transformative a few simple details can be: dishes in the dishwasher, laundry baskets to the guestroom, pillows straightened on the couch, and definitely a freshly cleaned toilet.

Few things beat a freshly cleaned toilet.

Dinner Gathering 2

By 7:30, I’m probably turning on the music, lighting the honey-scented candles, and spreading a clean tablecloth in the dining room. There may or may not be flowers, depending on my ambition. Ice, glasses, and water are at the ready, and there’s probably a decent whiskey open on the bar.

I usually provide the main dish, so by 8 p.m., I’m cooking in earnest with what a friend of mine lovingly calls my “magic red pot.” I swear that Dutch oven is a lucky charm. Good things come out of it.

I never know exactly how many people to expect, but I’ve learned a couple tricks to help me cook around that. In the winter months, dinner will be a stew—flavorful, warming, and filled with ingredients that need used up right away. Vegan recipes seem to stretch particularly well if the number of people grows, Japanese dishes have crowd-pleasing flavor and tend to be on the healthy side, and canned tomatoes fit into most recipes while adding bulk.

Dinner Gathering 3

By 8 p.m., the first guest or two lets themselves in the front door. Is it weird to say it feeds my soul to hear my friends take a deep breath and shout, “Smells amazing!” before I even see them? Oh yes, people let themselves in. There’s no knocking at this house, not on Thursdays.

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Like I said, we’ve been doing this for years. It began as a quick way to have dinner together after a couple hours of playing Frisbee during the week. So my people know to make themselves at home here. Depending on the week, anywhere from five to 15 of them will gather in my admittedly small brick Tudor. They say hello to Pixel, the long-haired feline who owns us. She deigns to roll over in front of them all, her own form of welcome. Everyone comes bearing odds and ends like edamame, chips and salsa, roasted Brussels sprouts, fresh-baked bread, beer, or chocolate milk.

If you were imagining a 1950s-style dinner party, I hope that changed your vision. There are no pearls and gloves here, and very little genteel conversation. It gets loud, there’s a decent amount of profanity (mostly from me, I freely confess), and a few people are sitting on floor cushions. See earlier mention of small house—seating requires innovation.

Dinner Gathering 5

At 10 p.m., someone may have brought the bread and grapes into the living room because screw any more trips to the table to fill a plate again. The communal candy jar is most likely being inspected, and the coloring book on the coffee table could be getting a new doodle. A couple of my guests might have sneaked into the kitchen to start the dishwasher—a beautiful thing because I’m probably nursing a beer on the couch by that point.

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Around 11, someone will yawn because we’re all getting older. They’ll stumble their way to the door, and slowly everyone will follow suit. Again, depending on ambition, I’ll tidy up a bit or just fall into bed.

It also may have happened once or twice that I simply stayed on the couch with that beer. But no matter on what horizontal surface I find myself falling asleep for the night, I always drift off thinking something along the lines of:

“Damn. Everyone should do this.”

All photos by Hooton Images.

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