At my grandmothers house, the impossible becomes possible. Endless adventures down the stream and under the road, wellies sloshing and feet stumbling. Secret missions up the garden to the hidden summer house where my elusive uncle seemed to sometimes live. Easter egg hunts with tiny chocolate eggs in every flower and beneath every pebble, and on Easter morning Cadbury's cream eggs peeking from beneath an egg cosy instead of boiled ones. We were allowed to play with her fancy computer where you could draw straight through the screen with a magic pen onto untouchable paper. How things have moved on in 25 years...
There was a rug you could curl your toes into like long grass and a chair so big I could sleep curled up and completely encased in cushions. Everything in the living room inexplicably matched the scene in a famous painting on a nearby wall. In the corner was my grandmother's huge architects drawing table, complete with strange rulers and complicated plans drawn on paper that felt as though it might be made of rice. In the evenings we washed in a bath tub with actual feet (and painted toenails) and sometimes in water turned pink with granules from a small glass bottle. Could she be a witch? Maybe a fairy?
Strange animals lurked in every room - in one a painted rabbit quietly watched you play while in another a huge angry carp gaped at you from its waterless tank. Still elsewhere flying porcelain pigs flew overhead, naughtily dragging their cloudy camouflaged trotters through your hair if you'd let them. Tea was served in pots hidden underneath giant empty cats and if you were lucky you might be handed a KitKat straight from the fridge, the cold making the chocolaty snap so much more satisfying.
From the top landing you could see all the way down into the basement 3 floors below as the stairs wound round an invisible central column. I would look down and imagine jumping, floating perfectly down between the banisters and landing on the bottom floor with only a light thud.
And on top of all that, this house she had designed and built herself. She had turned a drawing into a building. Alchemy.
At my grandmothers house, the chaotic becomes calm.
As I grew older and my fantastical adventures faded into something somewhat less sugar-coated, my grandmothers house took on different meaning. She had moved now, as she was wont to do every seven years based on an unshakable belief that this was the natural cycle our lives moved in. She designed this house as well; so different from the last, but in no way less magical.
There was no stream at this house, no summer house, no 3 story invisible elevator. Instead there was light and calm and space. Just being there was a tonic to my crazed teenage life. Her house became my own private boutique hotel where raspberries and Greek yogurt were waiting for me on the table when I sauntered down late for breakfast. Cold roast chicken and potato salad was for lunch while a bottle of white wine chilled in the fridge for later, if not before. Yes, her house was my retreat, my hideaway. You even had to get on a boat to get there.
The shelves were filled with books about design, people and politics; one of which inspired me to change my mind about studying subject-of-the-moment media studies at university and pursue politics instead. On the walls familiar pictures hung alongside less familiar ones. My grandmother thought nothing of commissioning an artist she loved to paint her an amazing and huge new picture for her amazing and huge new room. No one else I knew did things like that. I still don't know anyone else who does things like that even now. Perhaps I mix in the wrong circles.
Her huge drawing table now occupied a light-filled mezzanine which also housed the day bed, made up with crisp white sheets whenever anyone came to stay. Who knew sheets could feel so good? I loved sleeping up there. The mere proximity to so much creativity made me feel, again, that perhaps anything was still possible. That huge desk. Drawers and drawers of pens and pencils, and the magnets and rulers I remember playing with as a little girl, all glimpsed through a wall of leaves of an oh-so-green plant.
At my grandmothers house, the mundane becomes beautiful.
She moved again of course, one last time - and seven years later. This last house was not designed by her. It was an unremarkable 70s semi in a residential cul-de-sac. With such a canvas most of us would meet unremarkable with unremarkable, filing away our grand designs for another time, or another life. But unremarkable isn't a word my grandmother is in the business of applying to her life, or her home. She has this magical touch that turns everything around her to minimalist, clutter-free loveliness.
Out came the walls and carpets and curtains that had lived there before and in came all her beautiful paintings and furniture and crockery. Even her soup bowls are beautiful. Because why eat soup out of unremarkable soup bowls when you can eat it from pottery that makes your heart sing? At the age of 85 she threw out her old PC and bought an iMac. She only needed it for checking her emails and playing cards but bought it, she told us with grinning glee, because it was beautiful.
Even objects that would otherwise not be that special suddenly take on a splendour of their own at my grandmothers house, arranged and curated in such a way as to make them things of beauty when in anyone else's house they might have merely been 'stuff'. Where the rest of us hoard and pile my grandmother constantly sorts and sifts. Hers is not a house kept as a monument for a long life lived, as is so often the case when we grow old, but an ever changing gallery of the things that inspire and delight her. Some that she has carried with her since she was just a girl but most have come since - and could go again on a weekend whim. What a lesson that has been for me about how to live with conviction and fearless freedom.
The drawing table is still there, but upstairs and out of sight. My grandmother has retired as an architect, and a puzzle table now takes greater prominence in the room than it's more majestic cousin. She swapped her double bed for a single, which is still flanked by her characteristically simple yet elegant bedside tables. A flutter of necklaces hang from a shelf, and a few carefully selected photos cluster in a corner. Light pours in through the blinds and dances on the dust suspended in the air.
My grandmother no longer lives in her house. But I treasure the gifts she has given me through the way that she lives and the homes she created. Those gifts are lessons, simply learnt and never forgotten:
Seek beauty and don't apologise for filling your life with it
Always look for the light and bask in it when you find it
Recognise what you need and take responsibility for making your life how you'd like it
Space matters, for this is where we live our lives
I'm no longer just a granddaughter now, I'm a mother as well. And I cherish the hope that one day my children, and perhaps also my grandchildren, may find such inspiration and comfort in my home as I have at my grandmothers.
In the meantime, I better tidy up...