Good housekeeping

Dec 3, 2008 at 6:00 am

Growing up in a museum isn’t easy.

Oh, on the surface it seems exciting, particularly if you read that book that spawned a thousand juvenile fantasies, “From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” in which a brother and sister run away and hide out in New York’s Metropolitan Museum. But in that story, the Met was more of an exotic vacation spot. Those kids could just as easily have hunkered down in an amusement park or hospital and had the same results.

I, on the other hand, had no choice but to spend much of my childhood padding across cold marble floors and huddling with books in cavernous rooms filled with fine art and antiques. My mom acted as our museum’s curator and security guard, purchasing its expensive artifacts at high-end antique markets and tirelessly following after me as I roamed the house, removing all evidence of my existence and depositing it outside my bedroom door.

Mom’s careful training had an impact. Once I got my own apartment, I decorated with the eye of a budding connoisseur. I lined my mantel with 19th-century figurines dug up at an estate sale, adorned my walls with flea-market china, and lined my most visible bookshelves with century-old books. I didn’t know how to make a house a home, but I sure could make it look Architectural Digest-ready.

My decorating schemes continued after my husband and I fell in love and bought a house. Together, we dreamed up extravagant plans for every room. Our bathroom floor would be redone in Mexican tile. Our den walls would be painted and plastered to resemble those of a crumbling Tuscan villa. Our carpets would be pulled up and replaced with antique hardwood. Once we’d written down our dreams in a reporter’s notebook, we spent our first year and a half saving for our manor-in-the-making, eventually managing to buy one luxurious red leather chair.

Then came the kids.

First, my two tween stepdaughters took up permanent residence. Shortly thereafter, I had a baby girl. Within months, my own private museum-to-be was, essentially, trashed. Disney princess memorabilia and back issues of Seventeen covered the surfaces. Beds were perpetually unmade. Footprints and spilled soda dulled the once-shining floors. Glitter and gumball-machine jewelry littered the corners.

I spent a few years frantically cleaning up after my new family, but resistance ultimately proved to be futile …

I had a son.

I had a son who gives new meaning to the term “natural disaster,” a son born with the preternatural ability to case a room, pinpoint the one item in it that can be destroyed and rip it to bits in five seconds. I had a son who ensured our home would no longer scream “French Country,” but instead, “Things Boy Hasn’t Broken Yet.”

You’d think this story would end with me crying into the pages of my “Martha Stewart’s Homekeeping Handbook.” But truthfully, it was only when I traded a smudge-free existence for sticky kisses and “Gilmore Girls” marathons that I realized the tiny fingerprints lining my walls and the candy wrappers carelessly dropped on the stairs didn’t offer proof that I couldn’t live up to my own mother’s standards of cleanliness and taste.

They meant, simply, that children live here.

The construction paper leaves taped to our kitchen windows and the tissue paper fish hanging from our ceiling fan may not have been inspired by an Italian palazzo, but they reveal our home’s youngest inhabitants are loved and treasured. The same could be said for the toy cars decorating our fireplace and the smudged pictures hastily pinned to our refrigerator door. Children. Live. Here. Get over it, Martha.

Of course, I’m speaking to myself, too, as I write those words. Because I still obsessively vacuum and mop my floors, scrub the countertops and, like my mom, trail after my kids, picking up the odds and ends they leave behind. But I’ve given up on museum-quality perfection.

I think of all I’ve learned when I return to my childhood home. A crystal chandelier now hangs in my bedroom and new objets d’art cover the tops of spindly antique tables. I spend the day chasing after my son, who pulls hundred-year-old books from the low shelves, grabs at antique lamp cords and leaves his inevitably sticky footprints on the white-tiled kitchen floor. My mother offers to watch him for a moment, and, exhausted, I lie down on the den’s Aubusson rug and stare at the ceiling.

This really is a lovely place to visit, I think to myself, but I wouldn’t want to live here.

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