One of my nieces — the one who asked me to be her God mother rather than being saddled with me in that capacity, so a very special God girl indeed — has recently moved into her first apartment. It’s been so exciting that you’d think it was I, not her, making the move.
Remember that special feeling? The huge question marks posed by your first home? What to do with furniture — if you have any to begin with, and if not, where to go to affordably get it? How to stock a kitchen? What’s enough to get you through, but not too much to break the bank? What to dress those endless white walls with, picture-wise? And the all-important question of a bed … to move that single adolescent bed from home or go for the queen-sized splurge of adulthood? (Was there ever any doubt about the answer to that particular query?!) Can the budget sustain a designer coverlet and matching pillow set, or do finances dictate a more modest bed spread beginning?
It got me to thinking. What exactly is it that makes a house a home? How do we imprint a house with “home?” The home where I grew up, known affectionately as May’s Madhouse Motel, was steeped in stories, parties, hauntings, and hangers on. Hard to match or beat that ambiance and attitude. But what of my own homes? How had they assumed their distinctive personalities? What role did I have in impressing them with their distinctive monograms?
I faced this question head-on in the house where I am currently living, when I moved in twelve years ago. It was so new that the builder’s white-painted walls had hardly even dried and not a single nail hole marred the fresh wall board walls. The nails had not even settled enough to pop and dimple the new coat of paint. It felt like altogether too much responsibility to ‘dress’ such a new and virgin place.
For six months, not a single picture hung on the smooth walls. What if I placed a picture hanger in the wrong spot and had to yank it out? There would remain a blemish on the otherwise perfect wall. So I moved in the furniture I had and left the walls bare until I could stand the field hospital look no longer. A good third of the house was bare of furnishings as this house was nearly two and a half times as large as the one bedroom condominium I had left behind in Brookline, MA. It would be awhile and a few pay checks before rooms could be furnished, and I was in no rush. I was still awed by all the space I had, feeling almost like I rattled around everywhere but the kitchen where I, my cooking gear, and recipes fit each other perfectly, like a lady’s hand in a long-sleeved opera glove.
Looking back over this house’s history, I am struck by how much of it is defined by parties and people that graced its walls. The house where I lived before this one held far fewer parties. It was an elegant Victorian building from the 1890’s, and I owned three rooms that were the original first floor but had been converted to a one bedroom condo.
I hosted countless intimate dinners in the parlor, which doubled as both dining room and living room. Most gatherings were graced with a fire in the marbled fireplace. But New Englanders, in my experience at least, don’t party much whereas here in Pennsylvania, having friends means having parties!
The Brookline condo, instead, was more a house measured in dog lives rather than by parties. There were the years of Gil, the yellow English lab who consumed everything and anything that was left on the counter. He learned to open the fridge whose ancient door seal left it vulnerable to an enterprising, cast-ironed constitution Labrador retriever’s food forays. The later years of my time there were marked with Hannah’s reign — the Rottweiler whose signal duty, in her eyes, was to protect me, hearth and home, and who thus kept a careful eye out for anything amiss either inside the stately Victorian windows and doors, or outside the house, walking by.
This Pennsylvania house has been a place of parties, large and small, casual (almost all) or formal (one or two), and all strung together with fun and entertaining people as if on an opera-length pearled strand of delightful memories, delicacies, and drinks. Each party marks a passage of time, the beginning or end of an era or more simply, a holiday.
One party, which was geared towards the neighborhood youngsters, I threw in self-defense. Shammie, my pit mix who was rescued from Fairmount Park where she had likely been dumped with loads of other pit bulls, tested negative for pregnancy when I brought her home, and then hatched out 14 puppies in a flurry of birthing activity that took place between 3:30 a.m. and noon the next day a few weeks after I brought her home.
The neighborhood kids, especially the girls around 6-8 in age, were beside themselves with joy and every day appeared at my front door after school to ring my bell and ask if they could see the newly minted puppies. Needless to say, this cut into my work time considerably, and I had to think of a way to fend off the assaults on my door bell that were driving me nuts.
My vet — a conscientious D.V.M. who appeared at the house to preclude me from having to transport this veritable bevy of puppies — insisted on names for each pup so he could accurately track their medical treatment and shots. But the puppies had burst forth so quickly and regularly during Shammie’s protracted labor, that my Mom and I (Shammie’s attending midwives) had not been able to keep up with names so we were left with a passel of black and white, adorable, similarly marked puppies who needed names.
Thus I came to host my first, last, and only — highly successful, I might add — ice cream social. I bought three large tubs of ice cream, a handful of sundry toppings and sauces and invited the neighborhood young to come over and make themselves ice cream sundaes and to name Shammie’s numerous offspring.
Shammie was a supremely proud and gracious mother, and allowed two well-instructed youngsters at a time to come into her whelping area (the laundry room), sit quietly cross legged amidst the squirming mass of puppyhood, and add to the list of puppy names, cross referenced with identifying details for the relevant pup.
The vet, his children, and his assistants arrived to add to the fun, and I was quite proud that the vet tech said she had never witnessed as clean a puppy territory as the one I provided Shammie and her pups! As for the ice cream, who knows? I didn’t have time to have any, but everyone else had ample helpings of ice cream and puppy love!
The Name-That-Puppy Ice Cream Social was neither the earliest nor the largest party I have had in Exton, but it does rank among the most popular. The little girls (and if memory serves, it was almost all girls and just a couple of boys in that era) who attended the shindig are still telling the younger generation of kids who move into the neighborhood about Shammie, who tested negative for pregnancy and then had 14 babies that required names. Two girls, perhaps as a result of getting a bit of dog-imprinting on their budding psyches at a tender age, have grown up walking dogs and feeding cats in the neighborhood and are now old enough to be getting driver’s licenses and pets of their own.
In short, it was both a party and a pet that launched the Shammie & her Puppies Era that imprinted this house further with the warmer word, “home.” It is an era Shammie still presides over although the puppies have all long since moved on to other loving homes. Other parties blossomed over the years, and they are the subject of upcoming posts since they too imprinted this virgin house with fulsome hominess. And one of those parties also marked the intersection between festivities and new animal offspring, although this time of the feline variety. But more on that later … Lady Jane Gray, like Shammie, deserves her own party post!