Susanna Salk



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Pictured Domesticity
Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

On our mantle is a framed water color Eric drew of the exterior of our first home: a brownstone in Brooklyn.
We were both fresh out of college and Eric was just starting medical school and I refused to live in the homogenous world of school housing on the Upper East side.
I was done being a student and I knew Eric would study better in a space that had sun, space and vibrancy.
So we rented out the ground floor in a lovely building in Cobble HIll with views of a garden out our living room window on one side and the quiet neighborhood street outside our bedroom window on the other.
I loved how instantaneously we were part of a little corner of a grown up world: the sound of real mail being slipped through our door slot, walking home from the subway with a bag of groceries for dinner, watching the dinner time life unfold through the glowing windows of other brownstones as the night set down onto our community.
Back then there was no West Elm or Crate and Barrel: you couldnt find groovy chairs or tea kettles with a click of a mouse at 3am. We decorated with what few pieces we brought from our dorm rooms and childhoods, trying to make them more sophisticated in their new setting.
The other day I came about a box of Poloroids. Inside were a contained flurry of pictures documenting this time period from our marriage to our first year in that brownstone. Amidst wedding and dinner party pictures, (a jumble of people always jammed onto our one grey sofa in the living room), there’s a shot of our tiny Brooklyn kitchen.
We were so proud of it domesticity: the green and yellow tiles above the old white stove felt so exotic. We couldn’t afford art so we taped postcards we loved above it. We kept tea and such in a curious rattan cupboard on the wall and herb plants crowd the window sill.
Dangling from the window sash is a decorative bird cage with a stuffed red bird on a swing in its center.
We went on to get real birds, (and a cat or two) and real art in our lives but our first home looks as comfortable today even from the perspective of my now much more spacious kitchen, as it did when I was actually there making breakfast.
As I was dusting the watercolor, I read my husband’s inscription for when he gave it to me as a gift just before we had to move back to the city: “Dear Susanna: Because of you, this has been the happiest home. May we have many more.”


Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

We are not TV people.
Our kids enjoy their shows and play their video games on a regular basis but we don’t all group around the electronic fire unless we are watching a movie.
I grew up watching my parents only watch the news (when it mattered), Wimbledon and an occasional episode of BBC’s Upstairs Downstairs or Monty Python. They preferred (like their parents), to share a room, some music and a New York Times between them.
I am proud to say that this non-habit habit rubbed off: I feel very strange when I walk into homes where TVs blare in the kitchen instead of music or conversation and rooms where the enormous flat screen television suffocates the decor. When a friend of mine in LA promptly installed a TV in her daughter’s bedroom as soon as she could sit up, I had trouble scheduling play-dates.
We have always had just 2 television sets in our home: one in the living room and one in the master bedroom. The bedroom one is ten years old and tucked surreptitiously in a cupboard that probably held firewood back in the 1800s.
The living room set has never been very glamourous either: it just grew in size over the years but not in design sense. With its bulky screen and large behind, it ultimately resembled an overfed cat napping in the corner window, sucking out all the sunlight.
Shelves of books I have carefully honed over the years to contain only classics and favorites occupy the rest of the wall and surround the other window. The room, therefore, feels as my friend likes to say, “neither fish nor fowl.” It’s not Zen enough to beckon you to curl up and open a book and not inviting enough to watch movies either because you have to sort of turn and face a corner to see the screen.
When we got back from the lake house a few weeks ago, I patrolled this room again and again, prickling from the lack of light and Feng Shui.
My husband suggested getting rid of our old TV and getting a flat screen one we could put across the bottom of the bookshelf. This would free up the window to be just a window instead of a backdrop.
I am proud and lucky to say my husband does not watch any sports on TV. OK, he does enjoy a rousing Hannah Montana episode with my 8 years old from time to time, but his reasons for shopping a new set was more for the thrill that men get from buying electronics. Like shoe shopping can be for women. Before I could say Manolo Blahniks, a box arrived the size of a small freight train.
It’s 41 inches, (I don’t even want to calculate what that is in feet), black and shiny as a new pair of patented leather boots I just bought.
The only way we could install it was flat against the book shelves so that it ultimately blocked some access to my design library, a fact I found ironic and disheartening.
Until I saw how good it looked. Centered in the space, its dark hues seem to merge with the dark qualities of the book shelves instead of vying for attention. Even in my traditional room of cranberry, pinks and yellows, this mother lode of modern electronics let the light in. Not to mention Sponge Bob Squarepants.
So I’m happy to report that we’re not watching more now, just better.

Tuning In

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

I don’t love change. In one week my hair dresser of 10 years and my son’s beloved music teacher of 5 moved to another state.
I bought them parting gifts, hugged them goodbye with a smile and then I cried in the car all the way home.
We have our orbit of people, places and things always spinning around us just so, until someone or something removes itself from the constellations and we are forced to replace it. Sometimes with an improvement, sometimes not.
Our rooms at home are planets within this universe and we are the gods.
We place sofas, mirrors and book shelves in arrangements that suit us. Often there are no words for why we want a picture frame to go on this shelf as opposed to that one. Some rooms get our best stuff, others get the stuff we don’t know what to do with but keep. We toss when we want, buy when we want. But we are always in control.
And as much as I love the security blanket of the status quo, I have learned that change in rooms is good if not vital to the life lines of a home.
By change I don’t mean new kitchen cabinets or ripping down walls.
I mean experiencing the giddy effect of walking into a room that looks different yet the same. Simple changes. But changes that force your eye to reconsider the new pleasures of its altered landscape. Eric taught me this.
He has no problem moving a dining room table away from where it has been for years clear to the opposite side of the room.
I used to dig my heels in with resistance but now I know better. Every time we have moved stuff around we never go back to the old way. The new way becomes status quo until you decide to shake it out again. And I suggest you do. Baby steps first. Switch this with that. Hey wait, now that THAT’S there, THAT over there would look great THERE instead.
But the domino effect goes beyond just a visual sensation.
A very generous vendor insisted I take home a unique piece I had just featured on a Today show segment as they were no longer able to sell it.
It can best be described as Moroccan-style step of drawers. It’s sort of part bureau and part display case. It didn’t quite fit in anywhere yet its unique beauty demanded it to belong everywhere. It arrived at a doorstep like an exotic bird looking for its perch.
My 8 year old son instantly knew exactly where it was going.
His room is exotic and we had taken great care to outfit it in style, comfort with copious amounts of Legos.
The piece was not going to fit in without us getting rid of something.
First to go was a bureau that belonged to my older brother growing up that my parents had then given to Eric and I for our first apartment.
Eric had lovingly painted it white and then with an overcoat of blue, combed through a pattern all over. It represented all of our homes together.
And yet…I moved it out of the space. He was working, I felt guilty. A huge flurries of dust bunnies and missing Hot Wheels scattered everywhere along with my memories of that bureau.
The new bureau went in its place but it didn’t look right. Too cramped. At this point I felt committed to the change. And suddenly knew I would make it happen regardless.
I spied a tall book shelf that held Winston’s books and collected treasures. He looked at me surprised, but game.
Before I knew it, that was gone too, exposing a wall I hadn’t seen in years.
The room suddenly exhaled.
I quickly went through the books from the soon-to-be-gone shelf: I divided the keepers from the library give aways- a task I would never have considered until we moved someday. So many books we didn’t read anymore that could give another child pleasure right now.
Like an archeologist, Winston examined his little universe of unearthed treasures that had been stored on the shelves.
Some things he got rid of and others took new prominence on the step shelf.
When we were done, he hung his Chinese lantern lights above his new bureau.
He and I took turns walking into the room and admiring its new landscape.
It’s like we had moved but were home.
I realized I didn’t just teach him a lesson about decorating.
But that we need to look at our every day world with a fresh set of eyes, no matter how stalwart or transitory it may be.


House of Worship
Wednesday, October 1st, 2008

I do not go to church.
As much as I revel in the sanctuary of my own shelter, houses of worship do not provide me comfort. No matter the arc of the nave or how dazzling the light illuminates the stain glass windows, nor what spirit prayed to from the pews, I feel trapped.
I take long walks instead. For the past 11 years I have rarely missed a day.
I debate, converse and entertain whatever voices come into my head, whether my own or others. As I walk, I am looking outwards and inwards simultaneously. I feel completely free and completely safe, just as all houses should provide.
I am lucky to live in a place where I can drop my children off at school and within minutes be hiking along a brook or climbing up to admire nature’s views, no matter the season.
The walls and ceiling are always infinite yet I feel completely sheltered.
In Autumn, fallen foliage can obscure my path so I simply give a high kick, reveling that such a carefree gesture can help get me back on track.
In the Winter, cold tempts me to stay away but every time I venture out into it, I am grateful.
In Spring, the green astonishes me with its perennial optimism.
In the Summer, I appreciate every footstep as I know it won’t always be this easy.
My walks are year round sustenance that informs me on what steps to take each day.
I guess you could say I am religious about them.


Sunday, September 28th, 2008

Moving coats back into our winter home yesterday, I came across a basket in the back of a closet. It was filled with magazine images tagged with stickies that excitedly exclaimed “LIVING ROOM COLOR!” “PERFECT BATHROOM TILE!” “KIDS HEAD BOARDS!”
Two years ago we had thought we sold this house and fell in love with a gut renovation on a magical property nearby.
It was set high on a hill and was just waiting to be rediscovered after years of neglect.
Here I thought I could NEVER sell the house we had raised our children in for over 11 years and, after begrudgingly agreeing to go see it, after five minutes I was deciding which kitchen walls to knock down and where to put a new stone fireplace.
While we waited for the deal to go through (our buyers-to-be weren’t able to sell their apartment and buy our house until their buyers-to-be got were approved by their Co-op board), I decorated the entire house in my head with the patience and passion of a new suitor.
I even bought the new street number plate which I painstakingly designed on the Internet.
And now here was the numbered plate still waiting patiently to be attached to that oak tree at the base of that wonderfully looong, winding driveway (I am a sucker for long driveways) at the base of the house on the hill.
I’ve never read that book “The Secret” but isn’t it essentially about if you REALLY wish and envision something in your head then it will happen?
Well I knew what kind of doorknobs the house on the hill would have and it didn’t happen.
Like a bad game of real estate dominos, strangers in Manhattan decided where we would live: the Co Op board nixed the couple and the deal fell through.
The house on the hill still sat on the market as we kept trying to sell our house (because of course now we felt we had to keep the wheels in motion) but every day buyers came, it would pour rain. Cold, nasty rain that hissed: “Stay away! I’m taken!”
Our home was taking a stand for itself, as if it had ownership of us and wouldn’t let go.
Two weeks ago, I was at a party and a real estate agent bounded up to me with the news that the house on the hill had sold.
My heart sank. All that wishing, all that virtual decorating: I felt so betrayed. After all, wasn’t the house almost already sort of ours?!
I told my husband the news and we drove home in sad, stupid silence. Why did we want something so much when it clearly was never ours to begin with?
So yesterday, I threw away the numbered plate that I hoped was a beacon to a new place of possibility. It was a final gesture that didn’t being much relief.
But I kept most the tear sheets. I was still dazzled by the possibilities they had to offer. Even if it was to somewhere else someday. Or to the perfect hilltop house in my mind that at least
I know, will always belong to me.

Sunday, September 21st, 2008

It is getting hard to leave the lake.
With such gloriously warm weather, we are stretching our days here to give the illusion that we are still in care-free July. Autumn’s crisp schedule is always omnipresent and we don’t ignore it, we’re just trying to dovetail it into our outdoor pleasures instead.
So we will go out on the boat but only after homework is finished. I’ll go to the local orchard and bring a basket of apples- not corn- to our picnic at the little lake beach club. It’s closed up now and the life guards have flown to college but its still 75 degrees out. As I watch the kids splash in the water I think of these winter gloves I just saw come in at the wonderful clothing store in town. I check my watch. 30 minutes until my son’s SSAT tutor arrives. The test is now only weeks away.
I used to dread summer when my kids were very little. The days were hectic and unreliable. As I drenched little backs with sun block I kept thinking of all the work I had to do. But whenever I’d get to cram in work, the whoosh, whoosh, beat of the sprinkler urged me back outside with them and I knew I had to obey.
So I ran, from camp to conference call to cocktail party. From Labor Day to Memorial Day I only lay in my hammock if it was to play pirate ship.
I loved the certainty of what Fall brought. The crispness of the air matched the reliable school schedules. You knew from 8:30-3:00 p.m. was yours. The house became a grown up place again, a serene backdrop waiting your command. Then at 3:19 sharp it would do a reverse Cinderella as my wonderful boys would be deposited by the school bus at the front door and run in telling me something all at once, backpacks and arms half-opened towards me.
At the lake we are having summers as they are supposed to be. My kids are older of course so things I used to need a babysitter to do, I now get to do with them. We hike, canoe, grill, house and dock hop around the lake. It’s one giant play date. As I begin to look at high school with my older son, I clutch him closer, wondering how much longer he will want to share an endless summer day with his family.
So just as things get easy, it changes.
Today we spent a glorious afternoon on the water at a friends lake house just a few miles away from where we are. We tubed and dined on the porch on her garden tomatoes and fresh basil and then I took the picture below from their dock, trying to capture the serene spirit of what was around us.
As we drove home around the hair pins turns the lake was crowded with convertibles and bikers. I’ve got to get out there before the sun sets I thought.
We used to live in Los Angeles in a season-less environment. I sued to walk around and actually forget what month it was. Oh, it’s November already? I thought it was June. Back East, nature is constantly reminding us of what real time is. Deny September all you want but at the end of the day, the day will get darker sooner.
I actually can’t wait for Winter. But that means leaving here. And that means another chapter of family life has been written.
And I’m just not ready for that.


Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

It took several weeks but ultimately we earned the trust and love of a beautiful stray cat, (who we named Manu), who had been living on the outskirts of our lake property since last year. We used to see her, scurrying back into the shadows at night if we suddenly stepped outside or dancing in the tall grass along the brook.
I started leaving bowls of food out for her and cautious nocturnal feedings eventually gave way to strutting right up to our door in day light.
I offered my hand for her to rub and she shrank away until finally, once we made contact, she collapsed her entire body onto mine with a sigh. That night, she stayed firmly rooted on the large entry stone and looked longingly up into our door window, like a spurned sweetheart. I let her in.
She had, through the long winter, maintained herself quite beautifully. With her luxurious long hair and huge green eyes, she resembles one of those Fancy Feast cats that live on satin pillows and are served fresh salmon filets on china. And yet, even on a rainy day, when I went out, she was at the front door ready to dally in her old haunts.
Later, my son and I found her across the river bank, napping contentedly on a moss-covered stone wall beneath a canopy of branches.
“Wow, I want to sleep there!” exclaimed my son. It did look very Beatrix Potter. I remember reading those books as a child and longing to make my bed as cosy as the nest holes those animals spent the winter in. And it made me reconsider that our homes are as much about what we keep out as about what we keep in, regardless of whether we are outside looking in, or inside looking out.
Now, as Manu strolls the revised perimeters of her world inside, I wonder if I am keeping her from her real home or providing her with a better one?
Of course she had rugs to lie on instead of dirt, organic food to consume in groovy cat bowls from Target. And she peers out a window onto a world where she was both predator and prey. Does she notice? Does she care where she is as long as she is safe and fed? Are humans the only beings who judge their well being by the rooms where they lay their heads at night?
We just rented a documentary about Koko, the extraordinary gorilla who was taught sign language by her human trainer and companion, Penny.
With over 500 signs at her disposal, Koko suddenly gives us astounding access to the extraordinary depths and emotions an animal can feel.
Koko came to Penny because her mother was killed by poachers in the jungles when she was just a baby.
And yet, 10 years later, when asked how Koko came to meet Penny and live in her California home, Koko signed to the effects of; “Throat, cut, noise, scared, leave home.”
Here was an animal who, like we all do, recalled the battle scars of leaving a beloved childhood home.
After we turned it off, I left the door open all night so that Manu could come and go as she pleased.
When I awoke, she was curled beside us on the bed.


Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

It was supposed to be just a flip.
Take a little old lady’s house circa 1970, dress her up and send her back into the prom world of real estate to look for its love match.
But it was WE who fell in love. Unexpectedly and obscenely in love and now can not let go.
We bought the cottage over a year ago. It’s only 15 minutes as the crow flies from our main house yet it feels lands away nestled in the foothills in a snug yet glorious lake region.
We put in all the work and spent a summer there enjoying the fruits of our efforts and then said good bye Labor Day when we rented it out for the winter and returned to our original abode.
Then we pined for it the entire year until this June, where we breathlessly showed up minutes after the renters pulled out of the driveway, our suitcases half-zipped with excitement.
Every day I feel giddy. Am I tricking myself somehow? Cheating on my beloved first house with some floozy of a renovation?
Do I love it here because its so different that the setting I’m used to?
Our main house is a grandly restored 1880s antique set amidst two hundred year old trees. We worked on it tirelessly for ten years, saving it from years of neglect and careless owners.
At the lake, it took us 6 months. We pulled up shag carpeting, opened the layout and painted it all white. I furnished it entirely from online catalogues.
We knew putting in a lap pool just outside the new living room french doors was a naughty, indulgent idea but we did it anyway and now skinny dip at night under the stars.
I wake up and feel serene. Is it knowing water is just steps away or the clean lines of the furniture and bare walls?
We take scooters down our little road to the dock my husband built and we zip out on our boat, often with our boys bouncing behind on knee-boards.
I never liked to bike before and now I bike around the lake every chance I get..
I don’t even like lakes so what is going on?
Is because we feel perpetually on vacation even though we are in our home town?
Or is this the place we should live in forever?
Or are we merely besotted with “here” because we know “there” is still “there?”
All I know is that we aren’t giving her up. Yet.


Thursday, August 14th, 2008

They say water seeks its own level and I’d say the same for shelter.
We adapt- or try to- in making ourselves feel at home wherever we are and some of us are better than it than others.
Sometimes it’s as easy as placing fresh flowers plucked from whatever road side you pass and displayed in the room you are visiting.
Some people insist on bringing their own music, sheets, candles to the places they stay, whether for one night or the summer.
(For me: all I ask for is fresh, homemade food and a place to swim laps. Oh, and The New York Times if possible.)
Now I am vacationing in New Hampshire in camp-like conditions that, when the sun shines, are glorious and, in rain, the most wretched.
When we first arrive (and we have been coming here for almost 20 years), the rustic nature of the cabins on the lake take awhile adjusting to. The floors are dingy, the beds creak and Daddy Long Legs your bed mates.
But when the sun is out, the water dances and you soon forget that the rag rug by your bed is probably fifty years old and never washed.
There is abundant tennis, swimming out to floating docks and wacky canoe races. (You have to be here)
A bell is rung for dinner and you congregate like seven year old campers to eat homemade waffles and mystery meat. There is Capture the Flag after dinner and you bike back to your cabin with a flash light balanced between your handlebars.
A little lit fire awaits and you and you converge with your children and books before falling asleep to loons calling in the distance.
And then it rains. And rains. Three days of wet, ugly rain.
At first you relish the coziness, stoke the fire and break out the puzzles. The sound of the storm on the cabin roof is delicious until it starts to leak. Here. There. Suddenly everywhere.
Beds are moved out of the way, towels and buckets crowd the floor and soon the wonderful orderliness we had achieved to make our little place feel like home is all lost. Then we lose power too. Our ship is sinking and I desperately want to go home. I want to have the daily order and grace to my life restored. I become an ogre in these condition and dream of hijacking the car and driving back to civilization until they announce the roads are washed out.
I find a musty blanket and burrow down. It’s like my whole system just shuts down in self protection mode. I am asleep before dinner and stay that way until morning.
When I awake, the rain has stopped. We move the beds back, alight a new fire. Open the windows. Place clothes out on the line to dry in the weak but increasing sun. Put some wildflowers in a vase. I feel myself open back up, blossom.
Am I a diva? or a good sport? Somewhere, I’m sure, in between.
I keep coming back to an image I saw in a magazine of children in Bosnia. Their homes had been ravaged by war and yet they had somehow managed a game of ping pong in a cordoned off area.
An old board was the table which they took turns holding up and alternating hitting the ball with their hands.
That’s all they had to make them feel in place. And yet, in their faces, you could see for however short a time, they felt safe.


Shared Space
Monday, June 30th, 2008

Visiting my college for my husband’s reunion (we both went to the same school), I found myself taking a picture of the outside of my Senior dorm room window. I don’t know why I wanted to document it: it wasn’t just for nostalgia’s sake or that it was an incredibly beautiful building facing the glorious Quad. It was for the satisfaction of coming back and capturing what was for so long just a memory, only available to me when I tried to remember dorm life and all the rooms I had once occupied (some alone, some with assigned roommates and some chosen), since I walked into my first 10×10 space in boarding school at the age of fifteen.
I can never forget what I brought with me that first day and many of the rudimentary furniture/accessories I carried right through with me ’til college, (where was Pottery Barn Teen when I needed it?!):
1 wooden bureau: my mother had inherited it, then gave to my older brother, who deemed too ugly to bring to his boarding school, so I then painted it white to “feminize”
1 Indian bed spread: brought at our local “hippie” shop
1 set of flowered sheets: I’m not sure these were 100% cotton: I guess we cared less back then?…
Versace fashion ads shot by Richard Avedon: I liked to hang them all along the upper edge of the room until my room mate asked me to take them down: some of the expressionless models “scared” her
1 clock radio: sort of black and boring
1 lamp: can’t remember what it looked like?
1 framed posted: I think of one of those cliche Renoir or Monet paintings
Pictures of friends/family in graduation frames

Once I got to college and we had a college store (where I merrily charged away things like cigarette cartons and argyle socks under the auspices of book charges) I started to buy lots of plants and hang them from water pipes.

Why didn’t I buy curtains? Or change the hardware on that tired bureau to jazz it up? Layer my bed with an exciting assortment of faux fur pillows throws?
Of course it’s easier now to find all those things at 3 am via the internet.
But back then, there were so many girls who got how to create a lair that bespoke of them from the threshold: A friend of mine in college had a Henry Moore sculpture in her room, can you imagine? Another, an espresso machine. They had names like Lucinda and Valesca and they wore stiletto heels to class and smoked while they brushed their teeth. Their rooms were dark caves of style with taped-down shades. And it wasn’t just the women. My old boyfriend thought nothing in spending most of his inheritance on a sound system that, whenever he put on the Eurthymics, you could hear it in China. Razor sharp sound was to him more important than any furniture. In fact he got rid of his bed frame on the first day of school and moved in a futon straight onto the floor in its place.If you squinted past his homework which lay waiting on his desk, might almost think you were already graduated and living in the Village.
I would walk past these rooms down the wide halls (originally built to accommodate women in hoop skirts) and open my wood door and feel very much still at school. I still had some of my ninth grade dresses hanging in my closet after all and my Vogue ads were starting to curl up along the bottom.
Yet somehow, no matter how many times, I changed rooms and dorms, I didn’t change anything.
Who are in “my” rooms now? Who will occupy the rooms in my house I love so much now after I’m gone? I guess we can never think of rooms as being “mine” but always, no matter whose name is on the lease/deed, as “ours.”
I tell my son to photograph every room he will ever live in at school. It will remind him of how his personal style began, how he put down his own roots in his own soil and his ability to pick them up and replant them again. It will remind him of who he is still becoming.