Living in a small house


A couple of months ago my purse began to break. This might not seem as if it were much of an issue – but all the purses in all the stores I can afford were enormous. Most would hold a small dog, a big cat, or a baby. None were what I wanted – a simple bag with enough space to store keys, a pen, a phone, a wallet – and not much more than that. AND I wanted to be able to carry this bag in my hand or over my shoulder. I spent over a month trying to find just the right thing. I bought two – just in case I ran into this problem again in a few years.

When I went car shopping for the first time, I wanted a small car that could hold a lot – temporarily – but that didn’t carry extra passengers. Most of the time, only one or two people would be in the car; having a big van or large sedan seemed absurd to me. I spent a lot of time searching for a reliable small car, and once I found it I stuck with the style. It carries bags of mulch, lamps, a grill from time to time. And while a passenger can be moderately comfortable in the back, it isn’t a luxury car by any means.

When we looked for our house, I knew what I wanted. Two stories, decent kitchen, separate dining room. I might have preferred a large house with a lot of storage – attics, basements, spare rooms, offices and lots of closets. But we settled into this 1300 square foot house with just enough space for a good party, and not much space for anything else. And after 26 years, I regularly confront my tendency to acquire more than I ought to. Now that my parents are dead, I’ve had to deal with which – of the many things they acquired – I would like in my house.

Some history.

When I was a little girl, my grandmother and my father (her son) promised me some family items: a pitcher and bowl set and a cherry corner cupboard. My father’s family had come to Indiana sometime around 1830 – 1840, and had lived in a small corner of the state since then. These two things survived daily use for decades, and I loved the imbued history.

The pitcher and bowl set was one of those things that sat on a washstand in the bedroom and that was used to wash up – the precursor of an en-suite bathroom (chamber pot optional). I was told it had belonged to my great-great grandmother, and that it would be mine when I grew up. The bowl is the size of a bathroom sink – maybe bigger – and the pitcher stands about 12 inches tall. It’s white ironstone with a strong, dark pink rim – very simple (looks like this one).

The cherry corner cupboard (looks somewhat like this one) was brought into Indiana when Indiana was mostly frontier. As near as I can tell, this object was built sometime between 1820 and 1840, probably in Kentucky. Called a ‘blind cupboard’ because the doors are solid rather than with lights (windows), I can see where the pegs hold it together, and where it suffered from benign neglect; at least once it was rescued from a house fire. There are two large (patched) mouse holes along one side; the interior was painted with milk paint (an early latex paint) sometime after the mouse holes were patched. It sat in my grandmother’s home in Indiana possibly all her married life plus the decade after she was widowed, and in my parents’ home for the past 40 years.

I recently returned to Indiana to help my brother clear the house out some more. I planned to come back with these the cupboard and the bowl and pitcher. They had both been in the family a long time, and I wanted to keep them for the next 40 years or so. Of course, there were also all the other things my parents had owned, and wanted to pass on.

Bring it home or leave it there?

As I washed the bowl and pitcher to prepare them for packing, I thought about what I was doing. I’d first been shown the set when I was about 5. More than 50 years later – after my parents had held on to it for much of that time – I was finally able to touch it, wash it, and consider – where the heck would I put this? My house is too small; my bedroom is too small. And so, I suggested to my brother that he consider using it as part of a plumbing fixture – drill a drain, install it as a vessel sink somewhere. But not in my home. Sigh. 50 years of lust after an object, gone just like that.

I took the photographs of me as a child – there weren’t many, mostly school photos. And I took the photos of my parents as children – and the photos I had sent them of my son, for that matter. So now I have a photo of my mother holding me when I was about 9 months old – something to pass on to my son. There were letters and cards – and bills – that we had to look through to decide whether they should be kept. (I found an article about my father’s experiences during World War II – while he was stationed in Africa. My son found a letter from his father to my parents, thanking them for their letter – the one that followed my son’s birth. He read it aloud to me.)

My father had large numbers of knitting needles and yarn. I passed on all of it. My house is too small – and I already have too many knitting needles and too many skeins of yarn. I should place a moratorium on all new yarn acquisition until I use what I have. I certainly didn’t need my father’s collection.

My mother had dozens of cookbooks and tea pots. I skipped the cookbooks – I have my own. I took a couple of hand-written books of recipes, though. And I ignored the tea pots and tea kettles. Some were good, old, or memorable – but all would gather dust in my house. I don’t need them. I didn’t find the Turkish coffee pot – although I found the brass cups that went with it. I bought that – and the Japanese enameled tea kettle – on my travels. They stayed for my brother to sell.

My father bought my mother bells and music boxes. In her last year of life, she agonized over the music boxes, wanting to give them all to me. These stayed in Indiana – as did my mother’s collection of clocks (at least two in each room – and she was always late).

Over the past 45 years my parents had attended many estate sales – and for some reason, they bought depression glass. I took a set of Miss America pink depression glass (plates, bread & butter plates, small platter) and a pitcher and water tumblers – also pink – in a pattern called ‘floral’ – with embossed passion flowers. These aren’t part of my childhood, but I liked them – both patterns were popular between 1928 and 1938.

And to put them in, I took the 7 foot tall cherry corner cupboard – the one I’d been promised when I was small. At my parents’ home, it was filled with dishes and glass ware, and occupied a corner of the dining room – a space about as big as half of my house.

What about a small house?

The cupboard looms in our small dining room, a dark presence that I’ve had to wash and polish several times in the past three days to remove the accumulated dust of decades. It dominates the small room, cutting an angle between two doors. I think about the best way to place the table and chairs; I contemplate future crowds in my house, and how the space and this piece of furniture will accommodate them. I wonder where the sherry decanter should go, now that I’ve had to relocate my small pie safe.

Over the past day I have been emptying the more modern glass-fronted china cabinet that my spouse and I bought (used) in 1986 – that will go back on the used furniture market. I’m deleting some of the 40 wine glasses; I’m reconsidering the two punch bowls with cups that are simply too much trouble to deal with. I’m also reducing my collection of table cloths and napkins, and finding storage for all the things that come out only once a year – the holiday items. Those items I cannot store will have to find new homes.

After the first trip to Indiana to clear the house – last November – my son and his wife returned to California and hired an organizer. They didn’t like facing what constant accumulation of stuff could mean.

When I die – and I will – my son will have to consider all the things I leave behind – family heirlooms, childhood memories, books and dust collectors. Since he’ll be older than he is today – his own house will be full. And like me, he’ll decide which things to keep, and which to recycle in some way. I have a small house – and I owe it to him to make his job easier. All the photos I’ve placed in document boxes to be preserved in an effective way. The little things I’ve gathered on my travels – I should label them with origin and, if I can, with date. The stuff I’m reluctant to throw away – I should consider whether there’s any real use for these things.

I think I’ll go clean the closet. Small house – no modern storage solutions.

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