When I was 11 or 12, my mother decided it was time to update my bedroom. Until that point, the walls had been a harsh white, their blank nature punctuated only by the stickers I had stuck on them throughout my earlier childhood (which lead to many a punishment in the form of ‘disappointment’ speech, I’m sure). I was so young, I don’t remember what my furniture looked like other than my bed frame which was a delicate piece of wrought iron art, painted white with thick heavy paint.
My room was nothing like those I saw on TV: hot pink walls and shag carpeting, bean bag chairs and old wooden desks that looked like the perfect place to plop a notebook and write. So, when I was told my room was getting a make over, I hit the roof.
My excitement was exacerbated by the fact my grandmother owned a house decorating business (this was back in the early-mid 90s before everyone was ok with buying cheap garbage from big box stores). It was in an old house across the street from her own, and most rooms had some kind of delicate theme with beautiful keepsakes of china, porcelain and silver.
When one walked the narrow hallway down past the bathroom (whose old clawfoot tub had some ply wood placed over it to display ornate bathroom and toiletry sets), there was the “White Room” on the back right. I remember this room most fondly. When I was visiting, I was commonly found here, reading a book in the large white wicker chair with the blue cushion, or singing The Little Mermaid to myself in the full-length matching wicker (yes, wicker) mirror. Porcelain dolls in Satin white dresses, white curtains on the windows, white carpet, white china sets and more…there was a silver end table with a glass top upon which sat a modern phone modeled in rotary style… made completely of crystal and gold. Nothing in this room came at less than $100, but people were drawn to it, and its eternal morning glow.
One room, with a dusty floor and numerous scrapes, however, kept the carpet samples. The whole place smelled faintly of carpet glue used to seal the fibers to their fate. When you stepped into the Sample Room (as we called it), it sounded like everyone in it was speaking into a pillow, so stocked full of fuzzy swatches was the space. And my grandmother at its center, was like a ship’s captain, pointing at specific rug sample books as ladies with perms and daring pixie cuts listened to her ideas with rapt attention.
Upon entering the Gift House (as it was known everywhere in town), the entry way had been remodeled with heavy wooden shelves. These shelves bore what most excited me when I learned I would be getting a new room: wallpaper books.
Since the 90s, I’m pretty sure that wallpaper has fallen out of fashion. I used to see so many home improvement experts on HGTV grieving over how ugly it is. I have no way of knowing now, I suppose, what is favored. I still rent, and gave up cable for watching things I truly love on the internet. But back then, everyone wanted wallpaper. So, my grandmother got new books every month or so. I frequently spent time helping her catalogue new arrivals and pulling out discontinued books. I haven’t had the experience of smelling a wallpaper book in ages (if they even still exist?). But once again, the heavy smells of glue and vinyl, the satisfying snap of the thick “pages” as you rifled through them to get a quick view of what each had to offer… these physical sensations are the base of my childhood memory and I can’t think of home without remembering what they are like.
My mom told me it was my turn to pick out wallpaper books to bring home and help her prop against my white walls. She said I would choose some and she would, too. So that is what we did. I already knew what books I would choose: kid themed ones. These featured such designs as white with rainbow polka dots, or any single color of polka dots (I put a book mark on the white with purple). There were some that were simply solid colors, with room borders in modern, eclectic designs (a bookmark here, too, solid purple walls with white racing stripe border). My options went on, and I remember I grabbed a few more “mature looking” books as well, thumbing through and marking anything with purple and sleek clean lines or involving geometric shapes.
My grandmother, a second generation Italian-American had exquisite and old world tastes. I remember her smiling at me, perplexed as she gazed at my options. “Do you really like these, Catherine?”
I would nod, not unaware of the fact that she and I would never decorate a room in the same way, and she would give me a kiss on the forehead and pat my shoulder before turning back to her book keeping.
After a few days of book selection, my mother and I brought our materials back home. I elatedly showed her what I had chosen while she was out running errands, leaving me in my grandmother’s keep. She listened attentively, even saying that a few things I picked out where “very cute.” And, though I can’t remember now what exactly I most hoped for, I remember thinking she was on board with it, and my room was about to be splashed with modern purple, maybe even a nice shag carpet that would stop at the threshold of my door.
I was so young… and I don’t remember when I realized things were about to come crashing down in my world. But, all I remember is… after so much time passing, and my excitement at getting to design my own room, my mom brought me to the Gift House to choose from her final decisions. As I stood with her in the entryway, a warm spring breeze blowing through the screen door, I watched as my mom opened several books I had never seen before to wallpapers with ornate floral designs.
“Which of these do you like?” I remember she asked it as if I had never even been asked to participate.
Stunned, and being the kid that I always was, I blinked down at the books set before me. “I… don’t know.” This was my safe way, since I was a kid of saying “I don’t like this.” I never had the guts to tell my mom when I didn’t like a dress she picked out for me, or that I didn’t like a food she made… not because I was afraid to rebel (because believe me, not too long after this incident, I began to do just that), but because I felt that being honest that I didn’t like the things she bought me or did for me would hurt her feelings.
“Well, these are the ones I think I would look nicest in your room, so I would like you to pick which one you like best.” Her voice was so calm, so reassuring and so… I don’t know how to describe it. It was like a vocal drug, some weird narcotic used to convince me I never had any other option than hers.
I never had an other option than hers.
Something in me snapped a little… in a disappointed way. I shrugged, not wanting to be disrespectful and pointed to the one nearest me: bouquets of violets chained together by smaller purple flowers, repeating in a nauseating diamond pattern. When I pointed at it arbitrarily, my mom gave me a winning smile. “I like that one, too.” She said it so warmly, and put a bookmark in it for my grandmother. “Can you help me put the rest of these back?”
I lost all interest in the project at that point. I didn’t even care when my new furniture arrived… a fancy looking bedroom set with gold florentine handles and graceful curveture on the drawers and desktop. I watched the wall paper go up, and I watched the furniture get loaded in, and my teenage years began. No sleek old desk with a rolltop, no wall paper with bold or bright color or design. The final blow came when my custom made comforter arrived… the same design as was now on my walls.
I was suddenly a pre-teen in a room designed for a forty year old. All my mom’s friends, my grandma, grandpa, my dad, aunts, uncles, they all stood beside me, gazing around and said “This is a beautiful room.”
And my mom would beam and say, “She chose it herself.”
“Such pretty wallpaper they’d all say. You picked that yourself, Cate?”
“I like the color purple.” I would say.