Memories Matter More Than Mess

Written by a Mom who Has to Remind Herself of this Daily.

By Sarah Schwartz

We bought a fixer-upper. Andrew proposed to me in this house in the main bedroom the day we took possession. While he was literally on his knees, Quincy pooped on the carpet in the livingroom. I came out of the room and said “I smell pet mess.” And thus began my constant battle to focus on the happy memories and not the gross stuff around me.

The house had been a rental for so many years that when the repairman came to fix the washer and dryer, he knew the machines and the last three tenants that lived here.

There have been so many problems with this house. Which isn’t even a house by the way. It’s a double wide trailer with an add-on.

It’s not obvious at first glance because it’s on a concrete foundation with painted wood siding and has roll roofing (full of leaks). But you sure can tell when you look up at the faded yellow plastic strips in the ceilings, moisture filled tin window sashes, and thin hollow wood panelled walls.

The addition is the livingroom and it is shaped exactly like a shoebox. The ceiling is just as dark and low as a cardboard lid too. There’s a doorway punched out of every single side, two of which go directly to the outdoors. Dirt and leaves are trampled in from every direction. It’s essentially a mudroom that we watch tv in.

The main bedroom is off this room. Double french doors divide the spaces. They don’t close properly and light and noise cut through the panes of glass. The water closet in there doesn’t even fit a sink. When I was pregnant I couldn’t even close the door when I was inside because the toilet was too close to the door swing.

The whole house is hard to describe and feels like a hodgepodge of handyman “temporary solutions” that the passing of time made into permanent mistakes. Because it’s mostly “open concept” when it gets disorganized it looks like someone picked the whole thing up, shook it and dropped it.

It’s deceptively small.

There’s a pizza box hot glued over a hole in the kitchen ceiling and I’ve painted it white. It’s not fooling anyone and it’s starting to sag. The sink is about to fall through the countertop. That pretty much sums up the kitchen. I’m purposely avoiding describing the washroom because it’s just a sad sad space with a mildew problem and a few families of spiders who don’t give you privacy when you shower.

I’m green with envy when I see moms post photos of their kids having bathtime in brand new white shiny tubs and beautiful tile surrounds. Not to mention livingrooms with soaring windows. Daylight just pouring in, flooding their clean white walls, their “ballet studio” floors awash with with celestial zen.

We can’t put too much money into this shack because we will never get it back out. But we also have to invest something into it because it’s our home and needs to be functional as one.

I have a list of problems with this house that goes on forever. But I remember that this is our home. And it’s full of memories. Not just problems.

When I first gave birth to Walter and our midwife was visiting, the house was in an even worse condition then it is today. No paint or flooring even. And dirty from the dogs.

I put it down. Cursed it and apologized for the state it was in. I didn’t want it to represent (to her) anything about me.

It certainly didn’t reflect the type of mom I envisioned myself to be, or my hard earned degree in interior design.

My house reflected nothing that represented anything about me- except the things I’m self conscious about.

How it’s our first house and was so hard to even get approved for a mortgage because of that. How we had false starts, and even lived with my parents to scrimp and save. How even then, we barely had any actual money to buy it with. We had to take what we could get. How I was exhausted from university (I went back when I was 30-35 and had already been through school in my twenties) I was burned out. Honestly, how overworked I was in that program made me despise interior design and never want to go back. So the house sat untouched longer than I wanted it to.

The midwife didn’t know any of that. She just knew what to say. She stopped me and said,

“This is your home. Do not put down your home. This is YOUR home. And it’s perfect.”

And she was right.

I instantly felt self conscious that many new moms don’t even have a house to call their own.

There have been generations of different families living here in this very home since the 1980’s. Maybe even a family or two that desperately didn’t want to leave it. And that this house, as slap-happy as I feel it was built upon and repaired over the years, has kept people safe and alive and housed from the elements.

When our real estate agent was showing us the house, she said she remembered playing here as a girl. When her little friend lived here it was newly renovated in the best of late eighties fashion. She remembered thinking it was “so fancy.”

This house is all my children know. This is their home. I don’t want to put down their house.

Most of their childhood will be spent here and we are making the best of it. I’m hoping with each little improvement they are thinking it’s pretty darn “fancy” too.

I’m updating it, chipping away at it. Hanging wallpaper adorned with woodland creatures, painting antiques and sprinkling magic every time I make a new design decision.

I’m making memories in the mess.

I will never stop cursing it occasionally or reminding my visitors when they come over that it is “a work in progress” and that I have “so many plans and ideas” for it.

There’s something so vulnerable about inviting new people into the space wherein you live. Especially if it doesn’t reflect who you are, where you have been or what you envision for your future.

It’s a daily exercise on gratitude and humility. It’s a daily reminder that it is ridiculous and false to think you really know anyone based on the home they have or how they keep it.

Miserable people on the brink of divorce live in gorgeous expensive houses. An exquisite condo in a sky scraper can feel like a freezing dark hole in the middle of the ground if the love you shared it with, suddenly, is gone.

Sad, heartbroken children will keep their bedrooms tidy if they are scolded enough.

As my father (who is a retired professional in the field of domestic violence prevention and education) likes to remind me,

“The state of a home doesn’t tell you the whole story of what really happens within those walls. Men who beat their wives (and children) can have the most meticulously mowed lawns and the cleanest most orderly houses.”

That has also always stuck with me.

Houses aren’t always a measure of success either. I have friends in million dollar houses bought by their parents and they’ll never tell you that outright.

I have brilliant and remarkably hardworking friends steeped in the modern day reality that they may never be home owners. Costs nowadays are outlandish. You could simply be living somewhere where it’s cut and dry—there just aren’t enough houses for everyone.

We shouldn’t be so quick or bold to judge anyone- because really, a house is just a container for the people and relationships inside it.

Abundance, joy and love abound here. That’s what nobody can tell by looking at our house.

How the dining room is really mostly a dance hall, the livingroom is a comedy club or movie theatre, and the kitchen is the best restaurant in town. The bedrooms are where we all cuddle, rest and heal and the bathroom? You’d never know by looking at its condition, but (to the kids) its a trip to the waterpark. They play in the bath for hours. They don’t see the mildew or cracked tiles and outdated faucets or stained tub surround.

And this is just one of so many lessons mothering my children has taught me.

On days where the mess really gets to me, especially when there are no corners to hide from it- or doors to close, and it has just all become too much, my mom will pick me up in her car.

We will strap the kids in their carseats and drive around the island where I see nothing but the beautiful, yet chaotic perfection that is the natural landscape.

The forrest envelopes us with all it’s stages of decay, fallen trees and jagged stumps filled with bugs. We will drive down to the shoreline and stare at the vast expanse that is made up of slimy and slick rock piles dotted with clusters of sharp barnacles. The driftwood full of tangled smelly seaweed that the stormy waves have strewn about.

The natural environment is infinitely kaleidoscopic and ever changing. It is at once totally chaotic and bursting with art and beauty. My little family and I are no different. There are days when we’ve been slapped by a windstorm, or days where we are as calm and clear as a serene pond with water as still as glass.

We can find connection and joy by existing in all types of places. By being together in the here and now. Everything of real value is available at anytime, regardless of the state of your home. Because it isn’t about the physical structure. It’s about the simple act of weathering the storms with the ones we love. The people inside our rooms, whatever they look like, and the story of our lives that we write together.

The place where memories matter more than mess.