“What are these?” I asked, reaching to the dusty top shelf of the guest room closet. A rolled bundle of sturdy, colorful fabric filled my arms.
“They’re … rugs,” Douglas answered, a little uncertainly, looking over my shoulder. “Janet put them away in here because the cats were sharpening their claws on them.”
We stepped apart, and I rolled the bundle out between us on the floor. There were two scatter rugs, one slightly smaller than the other. A folky, geometric pattern, hand-hooked in brilliant cotton pastels: pink, turquoise, blue, green. They were bright, and breathtaking. One thing was clear: these beauties weren’t going back in the closet.
I’ve been settling into Douglas’ circa 1872 house since the spring of 2013, when we agreed it was time to throw caution to the winds and move on from “dating” into full-blown, mid-life cohabitation. And ever since then, in his characteristically generous and straightforward manner, he has gently corrected me whenever I refer to it as “his” house. Even after we were married, last September, I still sometimes slip up.
“It’s our house,” he says, firmly. And I like that, of course – what woman would not want to claim this solid, sun-lit place for her own? And, I do claim it, bit by bit – if not as my house, technically, then as my home, which it surely is. But it’s a slow, step-wise process, which feels right to me.
Douglas and his late wife, Janet, bought this house about 10 years ago. It had been long neglected and was a bit of an eyesore, frankly. The two of them poured buckets of time, work, money, love and creativity into making it their home. They did all the hard, dirty stuff first – gutted it, insulated it, rewired it, updated the plumbing, rebuilt the bathrooms, redesigned the entry and the staircase, installed all new sheetrock, refinished the old wood floors, replaced all the doors and windows. They scraped the original clapboard exterior and painted it a clear, sunflower yellow, with primer and two finish coats.
Then they started painting the rooms. Douglas says it was Janet who selected the interior colors. Unlike any place I’ve ever lived, there’s not an off-white or pale beige wall to be found. Instead, almost every space glows with rich color.
The home office, where I am writing now, is a head-clearing pistachio green, the living room a dusky, gingery red. Our bedroom walls are two shades of calm, pacific blue. The back guest room, where we were sorting through the storage closet, is a lilac so deep and generous it seems to summon a fragrant, late-May breeze. These jewel colors are impossible to ignore, and yet somehow they feel completely right, completely satisfying, in this old house.
The brilliantly-hued rugs rolled up protectively and stashed in the closet reflect that same, surprising aesthetic — Janet’s unconventional eye for color and design.
Janet died with pancreatic cancer in 2011, at the age of 51. I gather she was many things I am not, among them a native Newfoundlander, a conservative dresser, organized, athletic, disciplined and private. I’m not sure we would have been close, had we ever met. But I know I would have admired her and the life she had built for herself, including her high standards, her determined career path and the remarkable man she chose to marry — now my own dear Douglas.
As for the rugs, Douglas thinks Janet may have purchased them in Newfoundland. It’s hard to tell if they’re old or made by a contemporary crafter. An interested coworker has provided me with the name of a local expert on hooked rugs. I plan to find out what I can about them, have them cleaned and put into shape, and hang them on the color-soaked walls of my home — our home — where they’ll be easy to admire, and the cats can’t get at them.
This house is not a museum, or a shrine. It is the home I share with my husband, our families, our friends, and a small menagerie of pets. It becomes more my own with every passing season and celebration. But I am deeply mindful of Janet’s presence here, and of the profound sadness of her death. I am in no hurry to make changes in the name of claiming my space. Indeed, the most meaningful changes seem to be ones that acknowledge the casual and important ways our lives are connected, and my gratitude at being able to carry on with living while she was forced to stop.