A Displaced Decorating Style

I love this piece by Robynn! I will explain more fully in the comments but if you are one that mixes samovars with reindeer, white lights with Egyptian perfume bottles, and Turkish bowls with books — in other words, if you mix all the cultures you love and feel a part of in the decorating of your home –  then this post is for you! Enjoy!

A couple of weeks ago a new friend was over for a visit. She didn’t drink tea or coffee. She sipped from a glass of water while I snuggled with my tea-cup. It was distracting to me that she didn’t want a hot drink. All my true friends drink coffee or tea. How can the soul be properly steeped and infused with hope without the assistance of a hot beverage, a mug or a tea-cup, a smidgen of sugar, a drop of milk? Our time together came to an abrupt ending when she looked at the time and realized she needed to dash. Her son had an appointment and she was going to be late to go get him from school. As she stood and zipped up her coat, she looked around at my  walls and shelves, and she said something that immediately erased my concerns about her beverage-lessness.

Some day I want to come and walk around your house and hear the stories of all your things.

She pointed at a painting from Pakistan on the wall, a wooden couple racing off into the night on a wooden camel, and an interesting mirror. Tears sprang to my eyes. It’s true. Each thing in my space has a story and rarely do I ever get to remember and bring to mind those memories. Very few people even ask. Knowing the stories of some of my stuff is knowing parts of my story, often the parts that are no longer seen or viable or relevant in the world I currently inhabit.

In the middle of a seemingly superficial Christmas novel, Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past, by Sharyn McCrumb, I happened upon this poignant bit–The main character, Nora, has gone to see a house she used to frequent when she was young.

“Nora expected many changes and modernizations inside, and that was fine. The past was no place to live in. She just hoped the Havertys were not like some of the new people, the ones she thought of as displaced persons: people who had moved to the mountains of east Tennessee but seemed to think there were in New Mexico.

These confused newcomers decorated their houses in desert hues: sand colour, orange and turquoise. Navajo flute music played on the stereo, and desert scene artwork hung on the walls. Little bitty potted cacti passed for houseplants. Nora didn’t think that there was anything wrong with admiring New Mexico—…She did wonder why the folks who apparently loved the western desert country so much had tried to drag it all the way to Tennessee. Why didn’t they just move there, instead of sitting on a forested mountain in east Tennessee, pretending that they were out West. Nora really wanted to know why they did this, but she doubted that she ever would, being too polite to bring up the matter with the displaced people she hardly knew. Still, she supposed that their decor was none of her business; after all, the houses were theirs, not hers.”

It’s time for a true confession. I used to roll my eyes when I was a kid, at the missionaries who insisted on decorating their homes in a Better Homes and Gardens style with no reference to the country in which they had chosen to settle. There was no Pakistan within their walls. You could have walked into some of those homes and wondered if you were in Illinois or in Mongolia. There was nothing to connect you with the region. Those homes felt odd to me. It was like they were floating, strange sky islands, ungrounded. What was even more disconcerting to my young adolescent mind was the number of other expatriate women who would walk into those homes and ooh and aah. Those houses, which seemed so ridiculously out of place, meant something to these other women. They reminded them of other places, other times. Nostalgia and memory greeted them as they arrived into these homes.

In contrast, my favourite houses were the ones that blended the beauties of Pakistan and the beauties of Canada or the UK, the United States or Australia. Those home-makers had, at a heart level, come to appreciate their new country of residence. Pastel greens and lavenders were juxto positioned next to rich reds, deep blues and turquoises. Arm chairs sat next to mordahs (low level stools). Kashmiri carpets graced the floor. These homes reflected homemakers who had decided to settle. They chose to make themselves at home.

But now here I am–a foreigner choosing to put roots down, determining to live in this place, purposing to be at home here. I look around at my home and I realize I’ve brought other places with me too. I am afraid I’m one of those displaced persons and my decorating style reflects that. My things come from other parts.

I regret the strength of my cynicism when I was a kid. I had no idea what those women, young and middle-aged, were up against. In those days I had no clue what it meant to be uprooted. I was just a kid living out her childhood. Now I know better. Now I know how hard it is. It takes a long time to integrate your old self into your new space. And really, if we’re honest, some of us find it harder than others. I may never switch out my Pakistani things for Pier One Import’s equivalent. I doubt I’ll trade in my beloved Indian treasures for very many pretties from Hobby Lobby.

When we were first moving in to this new home I spent a great deal of time setting out knick knacks and trinkets and moving them around. I couldn’t decide how I wanted things. At one point my mother in law came into the room to appreciate my efforts. She looked around the room slowly, and she observed warmly, “You have a lot of things from Pakistan and India.” She was right. I do. This is me–a displaced person with an odd assortment of trinkets from misplaced parts of me.

You’re welcome to come over any time. I’ll make you a hot drink (or you can have water!) and if we have time we can talk about that painting from Pakistan.

What about you? How have you incorporated your old self into your new space? Would love to hear from you in the comments – stories of displaced decorating! 

22 thoughts on “A Displaced Decorating Style

  1. The word is “eclectic.” I had a Moroccan woman once tell me my home (in Oregon) was more Moroccan than hers ;) Of course we add in stuff from other countries where we’ve lived, and huge photos of the local coast. I like it. It’s cozy, comfortable, and definitely tells our story.

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  2. Thank you Robynn for this post. We are three months into our transition back to the US. I am in the “moving things around to see where they will fit” stage, put on hold abruptly to incorporate Christmas. So I have gathered up what doesn’t quite fit yet and put them in boxes in the basement. I’ll deal with those later. But as I look around my house my mishmash includes teapots from Morocco, coffee pots from Jordan and Kenya, my husbands blocks and wagon from when he was 5, last week played with by our great grandson, a brass lamp from Morocco tucked in the corner along with a copper coal pot found at a local antique store this past October, and a cement block with my handprint made by my dad when he built our house when I was a kid. On the table next to me sits my great aunt’s old oil lamp and a back scratcher from China given to me by my Moroccan neighbor! I was feeling a bit like I should put these treasures away or give them away….how much of this stuff do I actually need? My daughter suggested that I switch it out with the seasons. I’m more inclined to do that now that I have read your blog. Yes, these treasures tell my story, worth hanging onto.

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    1. I don’t know you Vivian, but your daughter’s suggestion is right on. Don’t give them away just yet. A couple of years ago in a pre-arranged time when ALL our children were together I asked them to help us clean out our storeroom. Everything that I was not using was up for the taking. As it happened I was in an out-of-town hospital and the only one not present! Nevertheless at my urging, they carried on with the great cleaning out. What they did not want was boxed up and taken to Goodwill. I cannot tell you how happy I am when I am in any of their homes and I see my once treasured objects still treasured and in use.

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  3. Our brightly colored Mexican tablecloth graces our dining table (whether in Mexico City or when we’re on furlough in the US). We’ve got collectibles from Costa Rica and Mexico on display right along with Yankee Candles and framed pictures of family members and the Smoky Mountain National Park in various seasons. Our furniture is an eclectic mix of Mexican craftsmanship and IKEA (actually, IDEA, the Mexican equivalent). My greatest wish is that not only will my family feel at home wherever we are, but those who visit our home will feel comfortable as well.

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  4. This is such a wonderful post, and an encouraging one for those who feel as though their homes need to be in the newest styles as depicted in Pottery Barn or Crate and Barrel. It caused me to pause and look around. My home has been and always will be very eclectic. I look on the wall and see frame drawings or greeting cards framed reflective of where a dear student (adopted family) has journeyed or returned home to, tokens from trips my husband took bringing theological education to others – Russia, Ukraine, Uganda, Egypt, etc Places I have journeyed in my life, tokens from new friends from other lands and treasures handed down from family members. Each with a story and there in lies the value. And I also am enjoying a quilted throw lovingly made by my daughter in law for me last year to keep me warm these winter months.

    Had to mention how I laughed with joy at the comment about it looking like an immigrant’s home made to Eunice. I love it!!

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  5. I agree with Anne Bennett – I want to be surrounded by things that mean something to me, not just pretty things to impress people.

    Sitting here on my couch, wrapped in a handmade quilt made by my sister-in-law, I can see my memories: a clock given to me by my best friend, my grandmother’s Brownie camera on the shelf with family photos, a piece of gold from a South African gold mine, a small jar of sawdust from the circus where I worked one year, a Japanese bell hanging from the ceiling in the corner, a cuia and bomba from Brasil for mate, a painting I did of the St. Louis Arch, a photo of Montana that my husband gave me, a Vaudeville poster of my great-aunt Rosie’s act, and a watercolour print by Eileen Seitz that is almost exactly the view from my primary school in Nassau.

    Like Robynn wrote, ‘Each thing in my space has a story ….. Very few people even ask. Knowing the stories of some of my stuff is knowing parts of my story,’

    Sigh.

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    1. I want to hear your stories Robin! Especially about the gold from South Africa and your great aunt Rosie’s act! I also want to ask you about the Eileen Seitz print. You’ve been all over. Your stuff tells some of that story!

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  6. This first time I invited students over for a meal, one commented “Oh, you buy your decorations at CostCo World Market too?” I about bit my tongue off. “No… these are the things from my home where I grew up. This kerosine lantern used to be in my bedroom when I was a child. I used it to read late at night…”

    I remember feeling ridiculously offended by the idea… and have since learned to curb my overreaction to the com-modification of cultures via capitalism. Sorta. :)

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  7. I had a TV repairman look around my house and a bit bewildered, said “I’ve seen a house that looked like this but some immigrants were in it! Good company I say!

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  8. Robynn I’m not sure about the ‘displaced decorating style’ you claim to have. There is an old saying “home is where the heart is” and very clearly your heart is in the decorating style you have chosen. You have made a very warm and loving home and your style is very much in place. Not displaced at all! It’s eclectic, interesting and so much you. Take a look at my FB where this year I am sharing some of our collections from all over, reflecting who we are. At the same time another album reflects the past as we evolved in our Christmas celebrations, mostly our American traditions, always attempting to integrate our customs and creating new ones. Your collections are accessories that would be envied by many an interior decorator. I’d love to see all of them with you and a hot cup of decaffeinated chai. MERRY CHRISTMAS.

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    1. I’d be honored if you popped in for tea! We probably share treasures from the same bazaars in Murree and Islamabad! Merry Christmas to you too!

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  9. As I read this, I was wondering what my style is. I haven’t traveled much and I don’t like dusting, so I really don’t have many nicnacks. I then looked up at the walls in the room I was sitting in and saw that they were covered in my kids’ artwork, wall-to-wall, up to the ceiling. Oh yeah, there’s my style!

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  10. I always feel a little sad, (and I guess, judgmental), towards people whose decors are beautiful, but meaningless. Where are your treasures from trips? Where are your heirlooms? This says a lot about the decorator, but what does it say about you?

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  11. I don’t think I have any decorating “sense” – Marilyn has it all, and she didn’t get it from my genes! But my small living room has wedding pictures of our married grandkids, their High School pictures are on a bulletin board in the kitchen. There is a photo by Ralph of the little church in Nathia Gali along side a framed copy of a song/poem he wrote called “O Church of God” done in calligraphy by Cliff. Over the sofa we have a carved bird from Granddaughter Melanie who spent 2 years with the Peace Corps in Namibia. There are two pen and ink drawings from Pakistan done by Cliff and another framed saying by Terry, “Families are like quilts, lives pieced together, stitched with smiles and tears, colored by memories and bound by love”. In the center of all these we have a hand done picture of a house in Sindhi Ajrak with names of all the places we’ve lived around the edge. Around the house it says, “Home is where God sends us.” Dan and Carol created this last treasure. It’s the memories that each one evokes, and to me it says and feels, this is our home, these are small pieces of our long life. Thanks so much Robynn. I would love to drop in and you could make me a cup of real Pakistani chai – well, I guess Indian would also be OK!

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    1. I would LOVE to see these precious treasures on your wall….I especially love the idea of Dan and Carol’s gift to you. That’s an idea for my own folks in the future! I’m jealous of your Cliff Gardner originals too! Merry Christmas Dear Auntie Polly!

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