Since I started blogging almost a decade ago, I’ve been asked countless times where my love for design and the home came from. I’ve always answered that it stemmed from discovering an issue of a British design mag, Livingetc, at a petrol (gas!) station while my mum filled up the car with fuel. I was twelve years old, and completely captivated with all things décor and design from that first issue onwards. I remember it like it was yesterday. However, it wasn’t in that moment that I learned to love and appreciate my home. That story starts differently.
It was a cold winter Saturday, early in 1998, in the midst of a British winter. I was eleven years old, Titanic was dominating, well, just about everything, and I had woken up at a friend’s house. I had stayed over the previous night following a visit to the movies to see, you guessed it, Titanic. I remember my friend being upset with his parents because they wouldn’t let us head out to play football (I was secretly relieved because I hated playing football!). Instead, his parents said we had to drive me back home. I didn’t think much of it as I just figured they had things to do as a family that day. Plus, no football so, hey, I wasn’t complaining.After 45 minutes, we pulled up to our family home (pictured above as it is today under new ownership; I don’t have a digital picture of the house because it was the days of disposable cameras) and I immediately spotted my gran’s car parked in the drive. My gran and I have always been very close and so to see that she was unexpectedly visiting filled me with excitement. “Way more fun than football,” I thought to myself as I said my “thank yous” and jumped out the car, rushing as fast as my feet would take me to the front porch. Key in the door. Shoes kicked off by the doormat. Through the hallway, past the flowers on the entry table and into the kitchen…That’s when my excitement was immediately crushed. I saw my mum hunched over the apron sink sobbing.
The previous night while I’d been at the sleepover, her husband of twenty years and my dad of eleven years had decided to leave our family so he could start a new life with his mistress, the woman with whom he’d been having an affair for six months. He hadn’t even had the courage to say goodbye to me; we didn’t see or hear from him again for six months.
It had been a shock to us all, as there were no signs that my parents were unhappy. We were fortunate enough to lead a very privileged life: my mum and dad worked hard to afford to send us to good schools, we enjoyed a week-long family holiday every year in Europe, Christmases were spent as a family by the inglenook fireplace, and summers were spent playing tennis on the lawn. It was as idyllic as it sounds.The house was located in a charming village deep within the English countryside. My bedroom window overlooked rolling fields, mooing cows and there was often the distant, comforting hum of a tractor, dog barking or flock of birds tweeting. Gran would come to stay and we would walk her dog, Bruno, for hours down country lanes and across the fields. Despite being nearly sixty years apart in age, we would laugh and chat for hours on end. When she was staying I would run downstairs to her room every morning and jump under the covers to chat and I would pretend I liked drinking coffee so I would feel more grown up! I look back to those times – the unaltered, naive bliss of childhood – with misty-eyed warmth. I treasure those memories and realize just how lucky I was to live in such a safe and loving environment during those early years of childhood.
But, and with the sincere hope it won’t sound melodramatic, that winter Saturday in 1998 when I arrived home to find our family broken apart, that was the day that my childhood ended. It was that day that the calm and comforting place I had known as home changed forever. Lying in bed that night I remember shivering at the unknown that lay ahead.The years that followed were turbulent to say the least. My poor mum was, understandably, wracked with grief and my teenager brother was old enough to escape the house and deal with the emotions in his own way, in his own time. As a pre-teen I was confined to the house. As a result had to grow up super-fast and learn to deal with lots of situations that even now as a thirty-year-old adult, can be hard to think about. It’s not my place to share the full details of what happened over those tumultuous years, and arguably there would be little to be gained from doing so, but suffice to say that home was not the safe sanctuary it had been.
Yet, despite all the challenges and heartache of that time period in my life I still had a physical home to go to. And you know what? I should have been more grateful for that. I should have acted out less; been more grateful for what I did have. I feel as though I took for granted just how fortunate I was to have a physical space to protect me.As the years passed, I grew older, gained independence, (came out, but that’s a whole other blog post!), moved to a new city to attend university and that’s where I met my now husband. Since we graduated we’ve moved a lot (not least to a whole new country!) but I’ve always placed a big emphasis on creating a homely, welcoming and calm space for us both to call home. From the memories of my early childhood years, I knew how great home could feel when it was a happy, loving and safe space. I finally had the opportunity to recreate that feeling of true contentment and security by creating a home with the love of my life.
I now realize that over the twelve years my heartmate and I have lived together, we’ve not just been building a home together but I’ve been building myself, too. The physicality of ‘safeness’ that comes from having four solid walls to call home is so much more than the obvious physical security the home itself affords you. It’s also the emotional bedrock that comes alongside the physical security of your own home brings. The knowledge that you always have somewhere safe to return. It’s a space filled with the fabric of your life: the things and the people you love. There are ups, there are downs, but through it all there’s one constant: the security of your home.I found myself recalling the memories I’ve shared here as I sat at the recent Habitat for Humanity dinner in NYC listening to Clive Rainey, HFH First Volunteer, recall a conversation he had with a Habitat for Humanity homeowner. She was a single mum who was raising her son living in a domestic abuse shelter: her husband had beaten her and said she was useless. She said that the moment she first picked up the hammer on the site of her Habitat for Humanity home she was helping to build, she realized she had the power to change her future, and build a life and safe sanctuary – a home – for her and her son. “As I built my house, I built myself,” she said.
As I heard this story, I reflected on my own experiences and how beyond fortunate I feel to have found the man I adore, to live in the city I love and to have spent the last twelve years creating and building my own safe sanctuary – our home. (I’ve shared pictures from some of those homes throughout this post.) And I thought about how moved I was to do more to help their cause to bring safe and secure homes to people in local communities in New York City. As well as donating my social media fee from State Farm to share my experience of being part of Neighborhood of Good®, I’m going to be volunteering my time to makeover a community center in New York City in time for the holidays.The story of that single mum who, despite all of her horrific experiences, found renewed spirit and opportunity to create a home for her and her son, was thanks to the amazing work of Habitat for Humanity and their volunteers. I sat at the dinner and thought to myself how privileged I have been to re-discover the joy of those early childhood years and build a happy, safe home of my own as an adult. Now, I have the opportunity to play a small part in bringing that priceless feeling of ‘home’ to others in my community. And you can too. Please join me in getting involved and consider signing up to volunteer at your local Habitat for Humanity chapter, or donate to support their amazing work. I’m looking forward to sharing lots more of my experiences volunteering for Habitat for Humanity in the coming months, too!
// Photography by Will Taylor, bar images 1, 4 & 5 which were taken by Andrew Boyd for Bright.Bazaar