Let’s start by rewinding a few years:
The year is 2012. I’m 26 years old, it’s a cool spring night, and I’m impatiently waiting in front of Union Station in New Haven for my mother to pick me up. She’s about ten minutes late and I’m fuming, like only a spoiled daughter could.
As if I haven’t been through enough already! I think, grimacing at the memory of weaving my way through a crowded, rush hour packed Grand Central Station with weekend bags in tow (If you’ve never experienced this, it’s like the ultimate game of frogger, except not only will you get run over — you’ll also get yelled at for not getting out of the way fast enough. Just one of NYC’s many charms!). As if that wasn’t enough, I’d also sat for 1 hour and 40 minutes on a slow crawling, standing-room-only Metro North train that somehow managed to smell of porta-potty, even though I wasn’t in a bathroom car.
My mother pulls up in her Jeep and immediately launches into an excuse for being late — something about the return line at Target.
“It’s all right.” I say. “I just want to get home and see the dogs.” I decide not to lay into her, because she seems so bubbly and I don’t want to ruin the hour-long car ride ahead of us.
“Okay, we just have to make a quick stop at IKEA first,” she says nonchalantly.
I let out the ultimate groan.
“What?!” She asks innocently, full well knowing I am about 30 seconds away from a night-ruining meltdown.
“There is NO SUCH THING as a quick trip to IKEA!” I complain. “They make you walk through their entire stupid ‘showroom’ AKA a mile-long elaborate maze of cheaply produced particleboard furniture with strategically placed displays of $1 junk to keep you in there for hours and hours. There’s a cafeteria, for crying out loud! I don’t trust stores with cafeterias. They’re trying to trap you!”
“It’ll just take a second!” She says in her teasing voice. She apparently came into this interaction knowing I would be pissed, and she is now refusing to lower herself to my level, lest she let me ruin a perfectly good trip to her beloved IKEA. “I’ll buy you chicken fingers.” A peace offering.
“ABSOLUTELY NOT! I will not waste precious chicken fingers calories on IKEA!” I blurt out grumpily. But my blood sugar and patience are running low, so I know that I really have no choice.
This about sums the majority of my trips to IKEA. I would kick and scream, and my mother would soothe. I would vow never to go back. She’d always find a way to trick me into it (like holding me hostage, needing a ride home).
My mother had an inexplicable love of IKEA which knew no bounds. Okay, I guess it wasn’t inexplicable. She loved decorating, and IKEA kept her design ideas within reach. She was not a rich woman, but she could make a room look luxurious and modern for under $1000. She would start by looking for inspiration from HGTV or high end magazines like New York Spaces, and then look for some key pieces that could be substituted out at IKEA to save money. The rest could be pieced together through discount retailers (like Home Goods or Target) and one or two investment pieces would be purchased at her other go-to design retailers like CB2, Pottery Barn, Macy’s, West Elm or Pier 1.
She was very talented, and very passionate about design. I perpetually teased about her hobby, but also utilized her skills endlessly — not only for my own decorating projects, but also for my friends’. Her decorating advice alone has left her missed by many.
So, when I moved to a giant old fixer-upper house at the beach, I felt her absence with every decorating decision I made. Some, I made in spite of her (example: she was not a fan of string lights… which are present in nearly every room in my house), and others I made inspired by her. Some projects, I felt I couldn’t even touch without her advice.
“I wish I could channel Nance,” I’d complain to my friends. “I feel so lost! It’s too much!”
This sentiment felt exceedingly more prominent as I decided to tackle my backyard. The space was strangely shaped, had noticeable and ugly damage from Sandy, and was overrun with birds and squirrels, because nobody had really been taking care of it or spending time out there.
BEFORE: A hunk of dirty cement in need of some TLC.
My mother could always see the potential in a space, which happens to be my biggest struggle. I have good taste, and a knack for mixing patterns and decorating styles, but I have a really hard time envisioning the potential of an undesirable space. I called in for backup and consulted with Bonnie and my father. They both agreed something could be done — the patio could be salvaged, and shared their ideas.
I spent weeks researching ideas and searching for the lowest prices on each piece I needed. I used to outsource this arduous task to my mother, so doing it myself made my appreciation for her hard work as a designer grow with each passing day.
When it came time to actually go purchase the stuff, the dread came. Dave and I dragged our feet on trekking to IKEA with everything we could muster — no excuse was too insignificant to convince us to put it off. But finally, we could make excuses no more; a beautiful Saturday with no plans was ahead, so we put on our big kid pants and took the plunge.
As we walked through the doors to the Elizabeth, NJ IKEA, I felt a wave of nostalgia wash over me. The smells, the sights, the colors, the setup — it was all there, just like I remembered it. Only, this time I didn’t hate it. I felt something. Something I haven’t felt since May of 2013.
I felt my mother.
I am not a spiritual person. Though many people told me my mother would guide me, speak to me, or be present in my life, I did not believe a single one of them. I know myself, I thought, and it ain’t gonna happen. And I wouldn’t say being in IKEA was really like any of those things. It was more like… I felt connected to her spirit.
For the first time since her death, I didn’t picture her in my mind’s eye as an agitated corpse of a human in the hospital, without proper cognitive function, struggling to fight despite having no hope. I remembered her as a full human — a person who loved this crazy warehouse and their suspiciously cheap swedish meatballs.
I could almost see her pointing things out to me and driving Dave nuts with her longwinded exploration of every room and every idea in her head (don’t worry, I took over that part for her).
She was, in a sense, with me.
Maybe it’s because I’ve lost nearly every place that connected me to her, or maybe it was the spirit of doing a weekend decorating project. Perhaps it’s just that time has passed, and I am finally healing from the trauma of her horrific death. Whatever the reason, it was a surprisingly calming experience, especially after I had expended so much energy dreading it.
That Saturday, after a long, hard day of work on the patio with Dave, I stepped back to marvel at what a little elbow grease and a trip to “stupid” IKEA can accomplish.
AFTER: A backyard oasis
I sent a picture to my dad. “You have your mother’s touch. She would be proud.” Through my gratified tears, I thanked him, but couldn’t help but wonder why I felt so emotional about this project. It was just a backyard, after all.
But it wasn’t just a backyard. I had finally felt her. I channeled her. I had applied her lessons and was able to create something glorious out of what was honestly a tarnished space.
Most amazingly, I had enjoyed it.
Sneaky Nance. Through all of her making me watch HGTV, and dragging me through IKEA, and sending me links to consult me on her projects (or sometimes, our projects), and leaving her decorating magazines all over the house, and “hiring” me to put in floors and paint rooms, and always designing me my own space that inspired me and fulfilled my needs… she had slowly indoctrinated me to care about my surroundings, and to take pride in building them myself.
Our last project together just before she passed (my room in NYC) cemented the design-on-a-dime education that she gave me. And I guess it’s time to finally admit it to both myself and the world: I like decorating.
There, I said it.
I am once again reminded that I am my mother’s daughter, and I am amazed that she still has lessons to teach me.
Like: I am not a rich woman, but I can turn a crappy backyard into a beautiful little oasis by the sea for less than $500.