Six weeks later, I was ready to implement step two: beautiful surroundings in which to live. I’d pinched and stretched forty-five dollars out of the weekly grocery money. I’d flipped through back issues of Better Homes and Gardens at the library. I’d identified three decorating principles I felt certain would transform our tiny apartment into a less expensive version of the homes I saw on those pages.
Making the first of those principles, the absence of clutter, real for Sharon and me required two weeks of intense effort, using every spare minute I could squeeze out of the day. I had all but given up on making our home attractive, accepting that being poor meant our home could not be beautiful. That habit of mind had become a habit of living with clutter.
“No matter what I do,” I remembered thinking, “we’re still going to have that swaybacked old loveseat and that rickety end table with the huge scratch down the middle. It would not even make it in a thrift store.”
Well, that was true. It was also true that we would likely never have a goose-down sofa, covered in blue and gold-striped velour, or real china, or plush carpet. But we could have a clean and tidy home, without a stack of bills on the coffee table, no withered potted plant and no skyscraper stack of books in the corner.
With all surfaces cleared and cleaned or polished, with all damaged items discarded, and with no stacks of anything on the floor or elsewhere, our front room suddenly looked larger, much larger.
“Now it doesn’t look so sad,” Sharon astutely observed.
I winced. “Yes, you’re right, baby. It looks much cheerier, doesn’t it?”
I could have stopped with simply cleaning up. Cleaning up alone was a dramatic improvement and spending money on decorating felt like throwing it away. But I had too many scenes stored in memory of the Wexel’s home and its ambiance of comfort, ease, and beauty that seemed to fill the very air, and all the senses, with peace.
“How wonderful if Sharon could grow up in a home like that! And what if she loved her own home as much as she loved that second-hand bicycle?”
One Thursday afternoon, with forty-five dollars in five-dollar bills in my purse, I picked Sharon up after school.
“Mommy, are we still going shopping today?”
“We sure are, baby, right now. And we’re even going to stop and buy a snack if we get hungry.”
The department store at the corner of 56th Street and Busch Boulevard was our store when we had to purchase a necessity not in the weekly grocery money, like an alarm clock for $3.99 or a new teapot for $4.59.
“Here, Sharon. Put your purse next to mine in the baby seat. You can hold the list and mark off what we buy. I’ll push the buggy. But first, we have to walk around the whole store. ”
“The whole store?”
“Yes, sweetie, the whole store. We’re going to buy a lot, you know, so first we have to reconnoitre. That’s a French word for scouting out a situation. We need to see what’s available in this store for the items on our list, starting with tablecloths and place mats. And if we see something else that looks good and we like it, we’ll buy that, too, just because it’s pretty to look at. So, let’s go reconnoitre ”
We did, indeed, reconnoitre that entire store. Then we retraced our steps, picking up items on our list as well as some we hadn’t thought about, like blue cushions with peach-colored flowers for the folding chairs, a predominantly blue picture of ducks for that kitchen wall between the table and refrigerator, and a few other things that were simply pretty to look at.