My dad used to work in a nursing home. If he had to go in on a Saturday afternoon, sometimes my sister and brother and I went with him. I’m not sure why this was permissible. I’m also not sure why we didn’t stay home with our mom. But she was a waitress at Davidson’s Restaurant and occasionally worked the lunch shift, so maybe she had to work, too.
The nursing home was small and elegant; its residents, all women and all rich. I remember my dad explaining the lack of men by telling us that women tend to live longer than men. I remember feeling lucky about this.
The nursing home impacted my life in so many ways that I probably could glean a good year’s worth of blog posts out of my experiences there. I could write about the months when the residents repeatedly mistook me for a boy on account of my hair, which had to be cut short after a bad case of headlice. Or I could get into the inspiring crafts the activities director frequently had underway in the recreation room. Or I could reflect on how the cook called us her “taste-testers” and spoiled us with samplings of dishes and desserts and plates of her wafer-thin sugar cookies. Or I could discuss how Harlequin Romance novels overwhelmingly composed the nursing home’s library collection and how I frequently borrowed those books and became a romance-novel junkie. Or I could talk about how I ended up working at this nursing home, too, when I turned fifteen, as soon as I got my working papers, and how I waitressed there for a few years, every Saturday and Sunday from 7:30 to 3:00, and polished silver, set the tables with many forks, spoons, and plates, loaded the dishwasher, helped with the kitchen prep, served the ladies on their left, and removed their plates on their right. Or I could pass along some of the reminisces the ladies shared with me. So many stories, theirs and my own. This nursing home was indeed a storied institution. I played a good part there and felt needed and loved.
But lately I’ve been dwelling on the nursing home’s glorious stacks of magazines. These magazines drew my attention when I was still a tween, long before the romance novels did. They influenced me in important ways, especially the interior decorating ones, and introduced me to opulent worlds far removed from the plebian, budget-conscious ones my mother’s Family Circle celebrated. I don’t remember if these fancier magazines made me think, Wow, I’m poor. And I don’t remember them awakening feelings of resentment or even envy. I just remember liking the gorgeous houses with their gorgeous interiors.
In fact, I liked them so well that I somehow managed to get my own subscriptions to House Beautiful and Architectural Digest. Whenever a new issue arrived in the mail, I’d pore over it intently, examining the airy bedroom that opened to a balcony overlooking the sea, the antique chandelier hanging low from a cathedral ceiling, the outdoor dining room under a wisteria-woven pergola…
Oh, those pretty pocket doors, antler sconces, and vintage copper pendants! The custom beds, custom couches, custom tubs, custom cabinets! After deciding which rooms I liked best, I would take apart the issue—literally. I’d tug loose my favorite pages and add them to an ever-growing pile that smelled like Chanel No. 5. The best part, however, was spreading out that pile. I’d organize the selections so that I could see them all at once, arranging them across our living room floor and creating what must have looked like a weird carpet of glamorous spaces but, in my twelve-year-old head, was like a house, my house, in which one elaborate room led to another.
The final arrangement—a menagerie of anatomized interiors, a hodgepodge of design, style, and taste—was pure, heady fuel for my imagination. Each room evoked a mood and told a story. I spent a lot of time thinking about who might appear in such beautiful rooms and what these people might do and what might happen to them. I spent a lot of time envisioning myself in the rooms.
So many authors mention the books they loved as children and how reading those books made them want to grow up to become writers. But I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid. In fact, I didn’t fall in love with reading until after I fell in love with these decorating magazines.
Maybe the perfumed publications allowed for this transition. Pictures to text, Architectural Digest to Anne of Green Gables, images of remarkable rooms to descriptions of startling settings: a natural segue, I suppose. Playing with those dissected magazines must have, in some way, lured me to books. I bet this enjoyment also influenced me as a writer. I’m certainly fascinated by settings and attentive to the ones I create.
Sometimes simply picturing a setting is enough to engender a story. Flames curl around the logs in a fireplace. On whose face does the warm light waver? There is a cracked leather armchair by a narrow window. Facing the neighbor’s kitchen window or a busy street or a thin stream or a thick forest? A tattered book sits on a low planked-top table. A mystery novel? Romance? Classic? An ancient book of spells? Opposite the window, light spills out of a doorway. That leads to a study? A bedroom? One noisy with conversation? An argument? Laughter? Maybe lovers’ laughter? Teasing questions? Breathless replies?
I want to hold my cold palms up to that fire. I want to pick up that book. I want to gaze out that window. I want to slip over to the doorway and peek into that noisy room.
Don’t you? Don’t you want to come with me? Don’t you want to know more?