I have a theory about space: the less room you have, the more efficient you are with it, everything in its place. With more space comes a mushrooming mentality, a catalyst for clutter. The mind can’t help itself. Space, psychological as well as physical, begs to be filled if not imagined. Beyond what we perceive with the naked eye are the mysteries and magic of outer space, popularized in movies like Gravity, the visually stunning if overrated Sandra Bullock/George Clooney box-off hit. For a price, even you, too, will soon be able to hop a balloon into the stratosphere.
A house, if you’re lucky, really is a home. In Gaston Bachelard’s profound and beautiful book, The Poetics of Space, he writes: “ . . . thanks to the house, a great many of our memories are housed, and if the house is a bit elaborate, if it has a cellar and garret, nooks and corridors, our memories have refuges that are all the more clearly delineated. All our lives we come back to them in our daydreams.”
An entire past comes to dwell in a new house.
I grew up in a small apartment, two bedrooms, one bathroom, a kitchen with just enough room for my mother to do her magic (not a second thought to the washing machine crammed into an eight-by-ten space). Brooklyn in the 1950s/60s was a great place to live, and a housing project designed to bring middle-income families to a developing neighborhood was just the thing. Instant community. Doors you didn’t need to lock, except at night. I shared a room with my brother until those pre-teen years crept up on us and my parents decided the sofabed in the living room was good enough for them. An accordion door afforded some semblance of privacy.
Oh, heaven, a room of my own! Only just as I’m getting settled in, guess who moves in with us? Oh, Grandma (otherwise known as Bubby), what an unrelenting snore you have! Trundle bed, sharing a room—you get the picture. Not that I didn’t love her.
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My grandparents had had a candy store that would become my uncle’s after my grandfather died. The candy store was a storefront in a building where my cousins lived, down the street from Macy’s on Flatbush Avenue. My mother often helped out on Saturdays, and one of my favorite things to do (when I wasn’t scooping out ice cream or making egg creams) was to wander on over to Macy’s, two departments in particular: the furniture department—comfy couches and chairs in my land of make-believe living rooms—had me in its thrall. And the toy department (duh), especially at holiday time. I had thing for Lionel train sets.
Saturdays sometimes had my cousins and me off to the movies, the Loew’s Kings Theater within walking distance. Majestic may be a word lost on a young girl, but even then I sensed it. The Ladies’ Room, with its privately grand sitting area set apart from the bathroom stalls, was where I held court, imaginary as it was. I could be a princess there. Or just a girl longing for space.
Is it irony, or destiny, that had me falling in love with (and eventually marrying) a man whose sense of space was as spare as mine was cluttered? An interior designer when I met him, he had a subliminal effect on me: often, after spending a night at his modernist, exquisitely designed East Side studio apartment, I’d find myself discarding a thing or two from West Side studio, cozy as it was choked with chochkes, books, records, you name it. A spinette piano, to boot.
The house we now live in is nothing if not a reflection of his vision. Lots of deconstruction and reconstruction when we first bought it, followed by an addition years later, largely to accommodate a business run from home. The girl who grew up in a small Brooklyn apartment, who has already felt as if she’s died and gone to Heaven, had a request: could we work a walk-in closet into the plans? Nothing too big. No point in too small. Just right, as it turns out, at six by ten. No more storing shoes in boxes hidden beneath shirts and pants doubled up on hangers. No more stuffing a new tee-shirt into an already filled-to-the-brim drawer. Nor is it lost on me that the closet is almost the same in size as the kitchen of my childhood.
So today—like magic—I’m standing on the new deck off my colorful kitchen (a replacement/redesign of the preexisting one weakened by years of weathering), a sense of wonder at how what was now is gone and what is quickly feels as if it were always here.
I have room for a Lionel train set, too. If only I can figure out where to put it.