Homing Instincts
A novelist is torn between her desire to save everything‑or throw it all away
May 1990
Picture Editor: Susan Goldberger

Mona Simpson in her New York apartment
Sentimentality skips a generation. Though I was not born until 1957, I am fully versed in what was lost and stolen from me by two antiquers in Green Bay, Wisconsin, before World War II. Is every family like this? Surely upright midwestern families are. My great‑grandmother Hattie Ziegler relinquished the German grand piano with its cherished stool and other pieces of legendary beauty and fantasti­cal value to the nice‑acting young couple -recently married, they told her‑ who were not that at all but antiquers who turned the merchandise around at Milwaukee auction houses for hundreds of times what they paid.

Hattie Ziegler at the time was very old, nearly hairless, and cane‑walking. She was a fierce woman who disliked children, and so it is not altogether impossible that she gave the heirlooms away for spite. That was the sort of thing that would have given her a chuckle: her children crossing over themselves deploring the devious antiquers, lamenting the valuables they'd lost.

I find all of this a bit difficult to believe. The one picture I own of Hattie Ziegler shows her sweeping the hand-made-looking porch of a saltbox house. A raked dirt lawn starts just under her sturdy shoe‑clad foot. Her husband was a welder. That a grand piano existed at all in that house seems to me a kind of miracle. Hattie Ziegler was known, however, to have good taste. "She knew just where to hang a picture on the wall," my grandmother said. In the 1880s, the time Hattie and her husband came to Wisconsin, no such thing as a decorator existed in the town of Green Bay. We assume that Hattie knew instinctively how to make a home. Hattie Ziegler grew up in Europe, and we believe she had absorbed some aesthetic there, having to do with the clean symmetrical quality of framed paintings hanging in art museums. (Green Bay had a museum but it was the dusty variety, full of dioramas of Indians and French settlers making peace on our own Fox River.)

Although their annual income probably never exceeded $20,000 in the 1940s and '50s, my grandparents hired a decorator when they built their house. They were middle middle class even in Green Bay, their living coming from mink, a small photoengraving concern, and the rents from one run‑down house and two filling stations, collected by hand. My grandmother, deprived of her family things, planned for elaborate storage compartments even before she owned a house. Houses had a different meaning then. When you bought your land in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in the years after the war, it meant you saw and measured and often built the rooms you would live and die in.

"Now everybody who can't make a living doing something else is a decorator here in Green Bay," my best hometown chronicler tells me, "but in those days, you could count the number of decorators on your thumb." His name was Mr. Jebo. Employed by the largest department store, Brigges ‑where he also did the Christmas windows‑ Mr. Jebo was tolerated as an eccentric. He was the one who decorated the Brigges' house, the largest in town, architect‑built. (This was unheard of, the architect being brought up from Madison.) Since Mr. Jebo decorated every decent middleclass house in Green Bay, he called his style eclectic. They told him what they wanted, and he arranged the this and that, the curtains, the colors, and so forth. In the thirties it was Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert's Paris apartment that my grandmother wanted to copy, but she didn't yet have the house.

By the time she called Mr. Jebo for a consultation, my grandmother's models were houses she had seen in Adam's Rib and Mildred Pierce, three times each. No matter if the looks she wanted belonged to New York apartments, skyline filtering in from the curtained windows, Mr. Jebo was an artist. "That's what you have me for," he'd say. "Don't worry."

My grandmother's house, once finished, showed an opulent front door that was never used, which led to a small hallway, a coat closet containing only empty hangers, and the card table that was pulled out the same one night a month the front door was opened and the hangers employed. This was a formal affair. The card table and card chairs were extracted from the still, cool, male‑smelling front closet, a cloth was borrowed from one of the many storage drawers upstairs, and although it had been ironed before its descent into the drawer, now it was ironed again. Eclair puffs, baked, cooled, and poised, cream whipped, a tin of strawberries thawed the night before in the sink was poured into a bowl, and still there was time. We stood in the living room pulling back the floor‑length gray curtains looking for the cars to come. We never started eating or drinking ourselves. In Adam's Rib, Hepburn and Tracy had a chandelier in their dining room. My grandmother always wanted a chandelier, but she never could quite do it; it didn't seem like herself. This was a source of great contention between her and Mr. Jebo. "Oh, go ahead, Irene, live a little," he'd say. My grandmother would blush. The ceilings went high enough, Mr. Jebo had seen to that. My grandmother was like a woman who just couldn't wear a red dress, no matter what.

The rest of us entered through the kitchen, a sensible room with a built‑in ironing board, a mangle, and a central table of the sort you can now buy in SoHo ‑chrome and Formica, with yellow vinyl‑covered chairs.

It was a different life. The house had one phone and one bathroom. The basement was the man's domain. My grandfather assumed control down there and was allowed his own sessions with Mr. Jebo. Thus the Polynesian bar, built in the mid fifties, replete with imported hanging coconuts, a scalloped curved bar, different‑colored pastel lights, and all manner of fancy cocktail shakers and glasses, which, by the time I played there, were laced with thick cobwebs. My grandfather had been to Florida but had never seen the Pacific. The floor checkerboarded two tones of linoleum; there was a game table, a gramophone, and a huge stuffed marlin I've always wanted for my own apartment. When my dear Aunt Ruth tried to pack it for me, it fell apart in her hands. I could never decide whether my grandfather was more influenced by From Here to Eternity or the Copacabana.

The living room upstairs held elegant grays and the TV, a centerpiece locked away in a mahogany cabinet. A certain inlaid table sat in the living room, too, covered with glass. It was a game table from my father's family in the Middle East. Since they'd built the house themselves, the rooms were replete with closets. The closet to the den held the family's many minks, some with feet and eyes.

My grandmother's own nuptial bedroom, on the first floor, was the simplest room in the house. There was no carpet but a thin planked wood floor she swept daily. The bed had a headboard, no footboard, a plain white chenille spread that covered layers of quilts she'd made herself with her own and her children's old dresses. (Nothing was ever thrown out.) The sheets and pillowcases were edged in her own handmade lace, all cotton, and washed and ironed weekly down in the basement where they arrived via the hail laundry chute. On the second story, however, her daughters lived in luxury. My mother grew up with white‑painted French desks and dressers and matching green and white striped polished‑cotton bedspreads, custom‑made under Mr. Jebo's supervision. Their rooms, with sixteen built‑in drawers and four walk‑in closets combined, spread as large as the whole house below.

My mother did not hire Mr. Jebo or any other decorator. She didn't feel she needed them. She was Wisconsin chic. She created, not followed, the styles. She rejected the fully stocked, TV tray laden, comfortable house she'd grown up in. Her own taste veered more toward that of How to Marry a Millionaire, after Lauren Bacall sells off the furniture. My mother never minded empty rooms. She was a perfectionist.

My mother believed she started white walls. Literally. "I did the first white room," she'll say, "and now they're all doing it. Look in the magazines. Remember Fossums?" The Fossums were the family who rented us the second story of their house as an apartment. My mother, at the time, put her many suitors to work painting the place stark white. She enlisted spinsters she'd known forever (they were the same spinsters Mr. Jebo employed; everyone in Green Bay knew who could sew) to slipcover old chairs and a sofa she'd inherited. Her taste was severe, clean, full of rare palms that required humidifiers.

My bedroom opened onto an unfinished slant‑walled closet, which my mother transformed into a playroom. For wallpaper, she stapled children's book jackets she'd begged from another spinster (the librarian Marion Werth) on every inch of wall. For a long time I asked for the books and couldn't believe they weren't hidden somewhere in the house. My mother is known, in her family, for her fickleness. The family white china she had to have five years earlier was nowhere to be found when her mother and sister visited. She, like her grandmother, was able to get rid of things. That ability is a kind of gift. "She doesn't have that anymore," my grandmother and aunt would say, sadly, re­signed, shaking their heads. "I guess she sold it. If only she had told us. I would have loved to have it."

Unlike so many people in families who say, "If only we still had the... "‑I still do. My mother's teenage polished‑cotton green and white striped bedspreads (made with a workmanship that only middle‑aged virgins could bestow) wait in a dress box in my closet. My great‑grandmother's rocker rests in my best college friend's California den, until I move home or move it here, whichever comes first. The inlaid game table from my father's family waits, glass covered as it always has been, in my living room, for someone to learn backgammon. What are all these objects waiting for? A big house? More likely, they're waiting for a place with more storage. For me the word "decorating" has always evoked the idea of a cake, not a house, but if I were to hire Mr. Jebo, I would ask him to replicate the lodgy, vaguely Frank Lloyd Wrightish house under Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest. All those beautiful wooden built‑in closets.

When I moved to New York to go to graduate school in 1981, I was 24 years old. I had $3,000 in the bank (the proceeds from a gas station my grandmother had owned). I spent $1,000 of it moving. What exactly? Some people would say junk. I would say family things. Some are in use. The cotton sheets and pillowcases, edged in lace, are on my bed, used now, almost worn out, unironed. "Even gay men don't iron anymore," I once told my grandmother. "I don't like to hear such talk," she said, "they can't help it."

My best friend, Laura, crocheted me an afghan when I moved to New York. Ben and Margo (keepers of the rocker) sent me a quilt they'd made. My friend Allan, a genius antiquer, has given me a cardboard horse, now hanging in my study. My niece's artwork, on a scalloped restaurant place mat, sasses back over the old typewriter. My study houses a collection of pinned butterflies and a Victorian screen full of birds and butterflies to somewhat mollify me for the parrot I'd like to own but am gone too much to take care of. I used to be a potter, so I buy beautiful pottery wherever I see it. The vase from the Amsterdam Avenue flea market. The bowls from the Midwest. The pitcher from Peru.

My problem is, though I could never throw these things away, I like plain walls. You wouldn't know, looking at my apartment, that my closets are jammed with objects half a century old from Green Bay, Wisconsin. Zen beads hang over my bed (bought from the side of the road, upstate) to remind me that too many attachments block the way.

I buy beeswax candlesticks by the dozen from a hippie massage/sushi/hot tub corner in Palo Alto. I found three unmatching silverish candlesticks at a flea market (the family things that wind their way to you are never exactly those you need). And tonight, three friends ringed around my table -in the bare kitchen, I will light the candles and we'll eat with the window open in the darkening room.