Visible Difference

by Loretta Slota Marshall

© Loretta and William E. Marshall, Heinrich Bauer North America, Inc.,1983

Somewhere there are small children who blend imperceptibly into adult environments, living in harmony with collections of fragile figurines and antique furniture. I see them in house magazines sipping tea at tables set with heirloom linens and miniature Haviland tea sets. They play quietly with one-of-a-kind designer toys in the corner of spotless ivory conversation pits, and the possessions filling the shelves of their well-appointed bedrooms would be welcomed by most museums.

Yes, there must be such children in the world--magazines wouldn't pretend there are just to make me feel bad, would they?

They are not the children who live in our house.

It's not that I am that disciplined or fastidious myself--I can always find something better to do than wax the dustpan (those magazines again). But some days I can't even find our house--at least not the house we lived in before we began to share it with two little boys.

It was a handsome livable home sprinkled with artfully arranged treasures. No one ever asked if they could do a photo feature even before the children, but it was comfortable and (with just a little notice) presentable.

When we were preparing for the birth of our first son, I dwelt on each detail of the nursery as if the fate of the world depended on blue gingham vs. rainbow stripes and how successfully we integrated the massive amount of paraphernalia deemed necessary for a new baby into a settled adult household. No small task, particularly for adults with a strong antipathy for plastic and gadgets.

But it was a challenge we met beautifully: When we brought Marc home we rocked him--by hand--in a handmade cherry cradle; toys, diapers, laundry, and, sometimes, the baby nested in attractive baskets; decorative folk-art toys and good nursery art mingled aesthetically with adult counterparts; and the only plastic in sight was the lining of his diapers. We almost called House Beautiful.

But, alas, it didn't last.

As Marc grew more adventurous and mobile, the more fragile of our belongings began to inch their way from low tables and chests to pianotop and high shelves until the rooms seemed to be ringed with shimmering halos of crystal, china, and silver.

The biggest change came at about a year-and-a-half. For one thing, toddler trikes don't fit in baskets, and for another, our second son was born. Matthew split his fitful sleeping hours between the cherry cradle and a chrome-and-plastic swinging cradle that a "big" brother could keep going. It was midwinter, and the only space for the toddler gym-playhouse was where we had uncrated it--in the living room. We tried to think of these new "furnishings" as High Tech.

From there the situation steadily got out of hand. Toys proliferated like hangers at the back of a closet--less of the charming folk-art ones and more with forty-nine pieces--which spread from room to room like the rubble from a landslide turning up under cushions and counters and in beds and briefcases. The assault on our territory was massive. Children's books, art supplies, tools, and experiments took over side tables, bookcases, and kitchen shelves. Balls of various sizes dotted the backyard like giant confetti. And we needed a navigator for the bathtub, since the children, like Ernie, thought no one's bath was complete without the company of a flotilla of floating objects.

To be fair, much of the early takeover wasn't their fault--after all, they weren't the ones buying the stuff. But the wall-to-wall impact on our personal environment has grown along with their independence, creativity, and discovery of the world. The artwork of any given week can cover all available vertical surfaces. And each foray into the great outdoors means new treasures: rocks, leaves, a broken brick, bugs, feathers, a deserted locust shell complete with twig...we like to think of it as the Country Natural Look.

Yes, you can tell children live in our house. Any casual visitor stumbling through the door could tell. The resemblance to a disaster area bothers me sometimes--well, maybe more often than sometimes--almost always when I see it through the eyes of a guest. But what surprises me is how little it bothers me. It's hard to get really upset about a sticky trail of marmalade when it leads to a surprise tea party prepared for me by my son. And, on good days, even the less charming messes seem a small price to pay for sharing a home with such delightful people.

There's something else that I've noticed lately. Our treasures have started to meld--the centerpiece on the dining room table is a mellow mix of an elegant carving of an eland and their rocks, pine cones, and acorns in an old basket; the nondescript assortment of seashells they gathered on their first trip to the ocean twinkles through the crystal facets of the Waterford rose bowl my husband gave me on our first anniversary.

My husband, a second-time-around father, promised me that we would see the world through new eyes when we had children. I envisioned, and have experienced, the wonder of discovering a snowflake and the joy of a Christmas tree reflected in my child's eyes. But I had not expected the large chunk of coal and old crab shell on the kitchen windowsill would be beautiful to my eyes too.

The house we live in looks dramatically different than the ones in the magazines and the one we used to live in, but lately it looks somehow--right.

Oh, the out-and-out chaos still gets to me. But there may be hope there, too. Yesterday Marc informed me, "Matthew and I don't want to play in our room anymore." When I asked why, he said, "Because it attacks us whenever we go in there." My sentiments exactly. Maybe they are beginning to see the world we share through my eyes too.

An edited version of this essay was published as "Does Anyone Live in Those Picture Book Homes?" in Woman's World in 1983.

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