The High & the Low

Stuff, Sweet Stuff

Sometimes what truly matters is what’s inside a home

Illustration: Michael Witte

About three weeks before my husband and I were slated to finalize the sale of our New Orleans house, an event that still impends as I write, I thought it might be a good idea to take a gander inside our storage unit—the one we rented nine years ago, the one where we stashed a ton of stuff while we endured the torturous renovation of the Greek Revival pile we are selling, the one I figured must still be chock-full because otherwise why had we been paying for it once a month every month for all this time? It was not full, not even close. Instead, it contained: six boxes of birds’ nests; two carrying cases of cassette tapes; a broken vase; four boxes of magazines; and, most thrillingly, a Carolina Herrera cocktail dress still inside the shipping carton from my former Manhattan dry cleaner Madame Paulette.

Looking at all that space, my first thought was, naturally, “You idiot.” And then there was the slightly unsettling time capsule nature of things. The mixtapes I couldn’t bear to give up had been rendered obsolete by my iPod Nano (introduced in 2005). The magazines (House & Garden, Southern Accents, Vogue Living, Domino) that had served as inspiration for so much of my current decor are no longer published. The dress, a thing of beauty adorned with black feathers, had last graced my body ten years earlier, at my rehearsal dinner. But interesting (and, in the case of the magazines, bittersweet) as the discoveries may have been, my main emotion was relief. Though I’ve secured a rather vast temporary apartment from which to ponder our next move, I will need that mostly empty unit. For one thing, I’ve managed to collect a great many more birds’ nests.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned: Houses and apartments come and go, but your stuff is, well, your stuff. For example, some of the House & Gardens in the box date from 1980, the year I had my first solo apartment, near Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle. Since then, I’ve lived in at least eight more places, all influenced at least a little bit by the stacks of magazines I move from place to place, and by the ever-increasing amounts of stuff, from books to birds’ nests, I’ve acquired.

Lots of words have been written about home being where your heart, your love, your dog, your parakeet, whatever, is. I get it—bricks and mortar don’t make a home and all that jazz (though if the Waterworks Empire tub I’m leaving behind in my bathroom counts as bricks and mortar, then it was well worth the investment). For me, home is where you find the touchstones of your life: the yellow and white “wedding” china that was a gift from my grandfather prior to nuptials that never happened; the John Alexander portrait of my noble cat Sam (and his ashes, which are somewhere in the armoire that holds the sheets); the giant tortoiseshell I smuggled out of Grenada during a hilariously hellish cruise with my dear departed cousin Frances. And then there are the nests: the nest of the weaverbird I smuggled out of Tanzania much to my mother’s profound horror (and fear—she refused to come anywhere near me at customs in Atlanta), the rare Carolina warbler nest my friend Bobby Harling’s sweet father found for me still attached to the branch. I have an odd connection to these nests (especially since messing with them as a child earned me a bout with histoplasmosis). They are so beautiful and heroic (I mean, talk about daunting construction problems), and I’m sure a shrink could make much of their symbolism regarding my own nesting needs. But I’m actually a bit of a vagabond—I just need to know I can take my nests with me when I go.

And that’s the thing about touchstones: Unlike a house, you can take them with you. After all, generations of Southerners have made a semiprofession out of toting around and lavishly tending to family heirlooms and prized possessions—though that’s not exactly what I have in mind. The only family portrait I have is of a relative so stern and scary no one else would take her, and while (note to my mother) I am wildly grateful for the generous amounts of silver sent my way, I am even more crazy about the handsome bronze bear that once sat on my grandmother’s back hall telephone table and the countless porcelain ashtrays where she rested her steady stream of Pall Malls. Recently I came across my great-grandfather’s caramel leather suitcase, the back of which I used as a headboard of sorts while lying in my grandmother’s luggage room, reading books deemed unsuitable for my age. A garret off the tiny but much-trafficked bar, the luggage room also afforded frequent visits to the mini fridge where I gorged myself on martini garnishes and monitored the ever diminishing contents of the label-less vodka bottle refilled by the houseman, Louis King, every morning. Proust had his madeleines—pimiento-stuffed olives and cocktail onions will forever be my own.

If I seriously miss any house at all, it would have to be my grandmother’s, with its vast basement and warm laundry smell, the Formica kitchen table where Louis taught me five-card stud, the elevator where Frances and I hid out and smoked. I will miss this house too, of course. It is lovely and light-filled and possessed of its own memories and life-altering events, the first couple of years of which I put down in a book. But the thing about doing that, about writing a fairly personal book about your house and the road that led to acquiring it, means that everyone who reads it thinks it’s their business when you sell it. “Why?” was the chorus as soon as we hung out the sign.

The most tempting rejoinder is, of course, “None ya,” but there are plenty of reasons. There’s the fact that I’ve accumulated at least four more boxes full of house mags in the last eight years and I’m antsy for a new project. There’s the murderous rage that’s reignited almost every time I rip my hand open on the multiple flayed doorknob screws courtesy of my disastrous contractor or come across some similar gift from him that will clearly never quit giving. Mostly, though, there was the instinct to jump off a cliff, shake things up, take a step or two back before the house itself became too much of its own thing.

It had taken on so much importance, with its own timetable and demands, that I began to feel like a curator. And though we had a trillion parties, we never had the glam official housewarming bash I’d always envisioned, because I was waiting to “finish,” something I finally understood would never ever happen.

Then there is the very real responsibility of the endless trimming of the hedges (so healthy and damnably fast-growing my tree man asked me if I was feeding them chickens), of replacing the forever burned-out fountain pumps, of fighting the termites and the leaf miners and the buck moth caterpillars dropping like little bombs from the live oaks—not to mention the bees (!) that took up very expensive residence in the columns on our front porch. Just this week—this week!—the bedroom ceiling fell in, another consequence of the aforementioned contractor and his moronic AC man, who long ago wound something the wrong way, causing eight years of steady condensation that finally rotted through the laths, the plaster, and two layers of Sheetrock as a parting gift.

When that happened, I was reminded of my friend the antiques dealer Peter Patout, who once woke up and rearranged his furniture (beautifully) in the middle of the night. When I asked him what had possessed him to get out of bed and start moving the settees around, he shot back, “Jesus told me to” with a (sort of) straight face. That really should be my answer to my neighbors: Jesus is clearly telling us to get the hell out of here as fast as we possibly can. Last week, the paper had a big piece about an incurable citrus virus that might well kill all of Louisiana’s trees, and I swear my lime tree has got it.

So we are leaving, with all our respective stuff in tow. I’ll be toting the birds’ nests and the umpteen thousand boxes of books, the cat’s ashes and my grandmother’s ashtrays and (probably) the mangy boar’s head everyone keeps telling me to leave on the street. This is the stuff that will land in the next house, and wherever it may turn out to be, I think I’ll go on and have the housewarming the first week. I need an occasion to wear that feathered dress again, and I can decorate with all the birds’ nests. I do love a theme.