Illustration by Alexander Purdy
I’m standing in an aisle at HomeGoods, holding a spoon rest. It’s a pretty thing, bright orange, shaped like a sunflower, and it only costs $3.99. I don’t happen to need a spoon rest, and anyway, my kitchen’s red, not orange. But my daughter Marcy’s kitchen has one orange wall. This would look perfect in it.
I’m pretty sure she doesn’t have a spoon rest. She doesn’t have a lot of stuff. She and her husband, Basil, are just a year out of school now, working their starter jobs, living in West Philly amidst hand-me-downs and thrift-shop buys and found-on-the-street reclamations, the way most people do at that age. They’re perfectly happy, but I know Marcy would like to have more — to have nice things. They will, someday. Meantime, I’m buying this spoon rest for her.
For most of my life, I wasn’t much of a shopper. Who had time to mosey through HomeGoods, what with the Girl Scout troop and PTA projects and going to field hockey and football games? I look back on those years and marvel — where did I ever get the energy to keep up with it all? These days, with the kids gone, I’ve got plenty of time to fill up. I have a regular circuit on weekend afternoons — HomeGoods, T.J. Maxx, the great little thrift shop in town.
My widowed dad took to shopping once we kids were out of the house, too. I thought it was a little weird, then, that he’d drive to Macy’s or Strawbridge’s by himself and wander through. He always had a mission, something he was comparison-shopping for, checking out prices: a window fan, maybe, or a new vacuum. He bought himself a lot of shirts.
I understand the impulse now. It’s something to do to keep yourself busy, a way to pass the hours between Phillies games and mowing the lawn. There’s another mom I know, a teacher from Marcy’s high school. We seem to have the same circuit; I run into her all the time on my shopping trips. She, too, is always buying stuff for her grown daughter. There’s something furtive in the glances we exchange, in our rushed hellos. We recognize in one another what we won’t admit about ourselves: We’re over-engaged but don’t know how to gear down.
This is my mission: to find something nice for Marcy now that she’s got a place of her own. Her brother Jake’s still in a dorm room, so there’s not much I can do for him in the way of home decor.
I know just where she’ll put the spoon rest: atop the oven, close to the pot holders I gave her that are orange and pink, that go with the tablecloth I got such a great deal on, that covers up the thrift-shop table I bought her. I like to think of her in her apartment surrounded by all these pretty little things she’s too frugal to buy for herself.
I DON’T WORRY about what Basil will think of the spoon rest. Frankly, I don’t think he’ll even notice it. He’s a modern guy; he’s interested in big-screen TVs and stereo speakers and computer monitors, not dish towels and hot pads. When Marcy first moved in with him and his brother — that’s how they met; the brothers needed a third roommate — the living room contained two identical beige sofas and a TV. That was it.
In came Marcy with her table and chairs and houseplants and party lights, and nothing was ever the same.
Now that he’s making good money, Basil is knocking off items on his wish list. He bought a gas grill. The TVs keep getting bigger. They’ve got Netflix. He’s got a gym membership. He wants a car, but he has to be able to drive first. When he left his home in Kenya for college here in Philly, he hadn’t learned how.
His wish list doesn’t overlap with Marcy’s. She wants a new sofa, to replace the one I got them at the thrift shop. She’d like a bistro table and chairs for their backyard. Surroundings matter to her in a way they don’t to him. I saw her once in her living room, staring at the throw pillows on the armchair and smiling. She caught me looking. “They make me happy, the way they go together,” she said, a little abashed.
I told her: “I know what you mean.”
It can take my husband, Doug, weeks to notice that I’ve hung a new picture or reupholstered a chair. My dad was the same way. My mom never asked him what color he thought she should paint the living room. If she was the one buying the paint and working the roller, she figured, it was up to her.
Besides, asking only complicates things. I remember going with Doug 30 years ago to register for our wedding at Wanamaker’s. I was so astonished when he actually had opinions about what kinds of plates we would be eating off, and with what silverware. Opinions, I should note, that varied significantly from mine.
But modern couples are different, I guess. I show up at Marcy and Basil’s one day with a new treasure for them in my car: an ornate mint green candle stand for the backyard. Marcy claps her hands in delight when I open the trunk. “Oh,” she says, “it’s just like the one we saw the other day that I wanted to buy! Remember?” she appeals to Basil. “And you wouldn’t let me.”
IF YOU WANT TO SEND something to Kenya, or send something from Kenya to here, you don’t mail it; the postal service is too expensive and unreliable. You find someone who’s visiting and send it along with him. This might seem less reliable than the postal service could possibly be, but there’s a lot of back-and-forth across the ocean, and Basil has tons of cousins and uncles and aunts.
I’ve only met his mother twice, when she came for his college graduation. It was the first time they’d seen each other in more than five years. I found just the idea of her formidable. Widowed at an early age, she sent all three of her boys to boarding school and then the oldest two to America to study. I couldn’t stand it when Marcy went to Mexico for a semester. How could Basil’s mom bear to be away from her sons for so long?
She and Basil’s uncle came to our house for dinner while they were in the States. We were all crazy-nervous and on our best behavior. Gradually we thawed out, and by the end of the meal, we were laughing like old friends. Marcy said afterward that Basil’s mom said she was glad her son had such a nice family to be with here. I don’t think I would have been so gracious. The way I see it, she’s the loser in this game. The kids are here, and I can drop in anytime I want after work, and buy them candlesticks and spoon rests. She’s 7,000 miles away.
By odd coincidence, she and Marcy and I all have the same gigantic feet — size 11. We sent her home with a suitcase full of books and shoes.
ONE OF THE FIRST things Marcy bought for herself when she moved in with Basil was a big statue of the Buddha. She’s not religious, but she likes the idea of serenity. She set the statue on the floor of the apartment and surrounded it with candles. She had a hard time convincing Basil’s mom that this was home decorating and not a shrine.
Basil’s mom is religious. On her visit, she presented Marcy with a leso — a big bright cloth, orange and yellow and black, screen-printed with fish and the Swahili for “In everything is God.” In Kenya, lesos are utilitarian; women wear them. Marcy wanted to hang hers on the kitchen wall. Basil balked at that; he didn’t think it was appropriate. But she talked him around.
I thought of that when, one Saturday afternoon, I discovered that HomeGoods was having a “Buy African”-themed sale. The front of the store was filled with colorful woven baskets from Swaziland, wooden tribal masks from Zimbabwe, soapstone bowls from Tanzania, South African animal carvings. Some of them were signed by the craftspeople who’d made them. The whole thing felt weird — like high-school kids who go to Rwanda for two weeks so they can add it to their college applications. The cheery guilt-culture was urging me to “Buy African” to benefit some faceless continental monolith, but I was pretty sure Basil would be taken aback if I gave him a tribal mask.
I bought a little wooden bowl inlaid with pieces of black and white stone, though, because it was from Kenya. Marcy gave it a place of honor on the drop-leaf table ($45 at the thrift shop) in their living room.
When she and Basil were in school, it didn’t seem strange to me at all to give them gifts: a lamp, a chair, dishes, pots and pans. Now that they’re married, though, it feels a little … intrusive. Like I’m trying to manage their household as well as my own.
Take the groceries. When they were students, every month or so I’d stop by after work with the car and take them grocery-shopping, so they could stock up. I’d pay with my Visa — hell, they didn’t have any money. It was just a way to help out.
When we took a recent grocery trip, though, I watched with my Visa in hand as the cashier rang up the total. “Is it all right if I pay?” I asked Basil.
He shook his head, firmly. “No.”
FOR MEMORIAL DAY, the two of them host a barbecue in their tiny backyard. They go to the Italian Market for goat to roast on the new gas grill; Marcy makes ugali, a sort of cornmeal porridge, along with kale and rice and beans. None of these are things she learned to cook from me. Basil and his mom taught her how.
I try to think back to when Doug and I were first married. I may have made meatloaf because he liked it, but I never made meatloaf the way his mom does. I made meatloaf my way.
Of course, there isn’t really any American equivalent to ugali. Or barbecued goat, for that matter.
This round goes to Basil’s mom.
Marcy and Basil travel to Boston for a weekend, for the wedding of one of his cousins. I drop by their place a week or so after they get back. It’s a light trip for me; all I’ve brought them is some bottles of the soda Basil likes and a couple of citronella candles for the backyard.
I’m no sooner in the door than I stare at a new leso hanging on the living room wall. This one shows a parade of warriors bearing shields and spears. It’s shockingly fierce — about as far from those HomeGoods “Buy African” tchotchkes as anything could be.
“A cousin came to the wedding from Kenya with a box of presents for us from Basil’s mom,” Marcy explains.
“It’s … ” What? “Striking,” I say.
“These, too.” She indicates a tall carving of a warrior that’s on the speaker next to the TV, right beside my little wooden bowl from Kenya, and another warrior on the set of wrought iron shelves I trash-picked for them in Ocean City last summer.
And here I thought we were being so civilized in this rivalry.
The leso and the carvings are scary. They look as out of place to me as ugali would at Thanksgiving. They don’t belong with the jacquard curtains I made, the prim blue armchair I donated, the pastoral Chinese paintings that belonged to my dad and now hang on the adjacent wall. They certainly don’t go with the Buddha, for heaven’s sake.
I don’t say any of this, though. I just hand over the sodas and the citronella candles, and sit at the kitchen table and chat with my daughter underneath a banner that declares (not that I can read it) “In everything is God.” Neither of us mentions the elephant — there’s one of those, too, painted on a new bowl — in the room.
One of Marcy’s professors once asked her what I thought of her and Basil. Marcy laughed and told her, “Oh, she’s fine with it. She says she’s come around to the fact that her grandkids won’t look like her.”
“They’ll look like her,” the professor said. “They just won’t be white.”
This apartment is Marcy’s and Basil’s. It looks like them now.
It isn’t until later, as I’m driving home across the scant miles that separate my daughter and me, that I realize: Basil’s mom’s gifts were only overwhelming because they arrived all at once, in one box. She isn’t doing anything that I haven’t been doing bit by bit all along, with pot holders and houseplants and drapes. She’s staking out her territory, laying claim, saying to her child from a distance: Don’t forget where you came from. Don’t you forget you’re mine.
Close enough or far away, it’s harder than you’d think to let go.
Originally published as “Interior Designs” in the August 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.