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Bland Ambition:

Ma’s aesthetic sense was yawningly conventional.

Not that I knew any better at the time, you realize.

Still, recollections of my mother’s house are all markedly lacking in character. Her top priority was to have all of the requisite status items of the moment on full display — in order to demonstrate that the apocryphal Jonses had not receded quite out of her sight.

Never mind that no one ever visited us to see them.

Her second goal was to have the house look as impeccably neat and coordinated as an illustration in a magazine article.

Being a solidly proletarian household, the target magazine in question was at the Family Circle end of the scale, rather than the Architectural Digest end. But “impeccably neat” was certainly within her reach, and woe to anyone who messed anything up.

But the worst of the damage was done when, like many other married women who had spent the war years in an aircraft factory, Ma chose to return to the workforce for a self-defined, limited period in order to earn the money for a pet project.

In many cases such womens’ pet projects were things like the children’s college education fund, or the family’s trip to Europe. (Sorry, I mean, of course, the family’s Trip to Europe — such projects were always thought of in capital letters.) In Ma’s case, the project was Redecorating the House Throughout.

By the time I was eight, the house was freshly done up in low-ticket 3-piece suites and the comfortable, idiosyncratic jumble of solid (and comfortable) old ’20s and ’30s pieces had been swept away. I missed them. The new furniture was scratchy and unpleasant. Fortunately the worst examples of this pogrom were set up in the living room where I was not allowed.

Whatever flickering bursts of individuality that had managed to survive the purge were, for the most part, kind of tacky. (Ma was rather a vulgar little body at heart. Unfortunately, she was quite unconscious of this, so never got any fun out of it.)

Examples: things like my first baby shoes, bronzed and made into bookends holding pride of place on the mantle of the front room’s false fireplace, with four gradually yellowing, never reread, book-club editions of murder mysteries securely in their grasp. A rather “moderne”-ly shaped bottle rescued from a neighbors’ bin on trash day, filled with water and green food coloring — to look like Creme de Menthe — living on a shelf in the kitchen window where it caught the light, etc. Such pallid little blossoms of the vernacular were weeds in a garden which otherwise never bloomed at all. The whole house was a rather painful exercise at an attempted statement of “good taste” by a person who hadn’t any.

Dad, apparently, had nothing to say in this. His aesthetic background was effectively nonexistent, aesthetics not being considered a relevant study for farm boys back in the ’10s and teens. And, of course, Dad was a man who never passed up an opportunity to not think about something. (Which, unfortunately, didn’t usually protect him — or us — from his not having anything to say on the matter. But not in this case.)

I vaguely recall protesting that the old stuff had been nicer than the new stuff (it was certainly more comfortable), but the concerns of a seven-year-old were not what this particular exercise was all about.

So far as I'm concerned. If you're the one who’s going to have to live with it, taking account of someone else’s idea of what consitutes “good taste” is just asking for trouble. Particularly when you are unclear on the distinction between “tasteful” and “fashionable”.

A decade later, Ma decided to upgrade the living room furn yet again and move the now older stuff into the den.

It was so bloody uncomfortable that even she couldn’t hack it. It went back into the living room (where no had one ever “lived”) and the new stuff ended up in the den.

And it still wasn't any improvement on the original stuff that she had been so eager to get rid of.