Susanna Salk



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Collective Children
Saturday, September 2nd, 2017

After dropping off my oldest son at JFK for his post-college life in LA, I am now packing my younger son for his last year at boarding school. In the basement, I couldn’t help open my box of letters and mementos tempting on the shelf next to where his dorm bedding has been all summer laying wait. It’s so easy to save relics from our past but far harder to revisit them this time of year when change seems to resonate for so many of us in different ways, especially for parents dropping off children for the first or last time at school. Three things were at the top of the box: funnily, a picture of Dwight and Holly Dando and me in London for those of you who read my story about that wonderful summer spent working for him in Martha’s Vineyard during college, can now can put a face to his storied self. Also a letter home during the first days of my freshman year at boarding school: I beg my parents not to come home, but rather to please save every copy of Vogue for my weekend return. Then I slip in that I’ve just had a friend put a second piercing in my ear but that it was good she did it because it saved spending money. Finally a copy of my eighth grade play Anne Frank. I was lucky to play Anne but far too young and myopic to even begin to grasp the irony of how her teen life was wrenched away just as mine was beginning. Tomorrow I’ll drop my son off at school and then the next day our wonderful exchange student from Sweden we’ve been hosting will begin his year at Taft. Soon my house will be empty the way his parents’ home has been for the past three weeks. I think of his mother’s email to me thanking me for taking him, her deep sadness at his departure only made easier by his known eventual return. I think how we’re all lending our children back and forth to each other over and over. It’s a boundless and boundary-less trust. I’ve never met his mother but I already feel like I’ve known her all my life.

Thursday, August 10th, 2017

You would not have wanted me to clean your house or make your meals when I was a junior in college but I did just that at the summer house of a man named Dwight. There I learned everything I ever needed to know about hospitality As I soon as I pulled up to the imposing house overlooking Edgartown harbor with a red MG convertible parked in the white graveled driveway for the interview, I turned around: I was no more qualified to work here than orbit the moon. But Dwight then appeared-wearing a bathing suit and a Tina Turner World Tour t shirt – beckoning me inside. Dwight’s sailboat was called Incorrigible and he loved how girlfriends would often call him that without knowing the name of the boat. My job was to feed and quench the thirst of the dozens of people who pulled up to the house either by boat, car or bike, day and night. “All I care about is that you are game and know how to use this…” and he gestured to an enormous wine opener bolted to the wall with hundreds of corks collected in a glass bottle beneath. My best friend Holly who was painting houses a couple blocks away would come over in the afternoons in an old hearse her friend was using as his summer wheels and Dwight poured us all shots of Aquavit and listened and laughed at our childhood stories like he was at the theater. Artists, bankers, scurvy sailors, and a countess or two were all welcome at Dwight’s table. He was in his late 40s but he had a childish spirit that was both nurturing and immature exactly at the right times. I would often find him sacked out on one of the many hammocks along the white porch after a flurry of lunch guests had departed. I’d look out onto the harbor and a yacht would be headed our way as if drawn to a magnet. Sensing it in his sleep, Dwight would jovially cry out “Incoming!” and another crazy cycle began. On my last day before I had to return to college, a storm suddenly felled the electricity. “Ever cooked swordfish for 50 in a fireplace?” he said. It was dark but I could see his grin like a lighthouse beam. I never answered. After all, my knowledge had never been the point.

Friday, July 28th, 2017

The definition of tresspassing is to enter the owner’s land or property without permission. According to this definition I have a committed this crime less than jaywalking but more than driving in the carpool lane solo. And to be clear I never go into homes: just driveways, back lots, gardens and maybe a deserted barn.
There’s the thrill of crossing into someone else’s life and for a brief moment trying it on like a gorgeous coat you can’t afford or don’t really need. You admire, you fantasize and then you put it back on the hanger and resume your real life.
It happened with particular excitement and intrigued the other day when I passed a house on the way to a party on an unknown road in a neighboring town. The structure had all the grandeur and run down romance of Grey Gardens: its exterior lacked ornamentation and paint yet the door remained a defiant red. Majestic old tree limbs arched over the long, ungroomed driveway. I was late to the party so I didn’t enter but during it I could think of nothing else. On the way home in pitch darkness I pulled in again with the certainty of a GPS destination. On the third floor, a small window was now illuminated, fuzzy with a slight glow. My imagination and Instastory went wild with possibilities. But more than anything I was too frightened to approach further. For days after strangers from all over the world messaged me to please return. So today I did. As I pulled up this time in daylight I could see that the house was not abandoned: inside the entry was a clutter of coats and children shoes, I could catch a glimpse of a music stand in the kitchen; toys and simple furnishings were scattered throughout. Dish soap was on the window sill. Someone was perhaps renting this house: not able to afford its renovation but driven to its character as I was. I left indebted to the house’s generosity to trust just when it was at its most vulnerable: without inhabitants. A house, after all, never judges your imagination. I think of my best friend Holly who on a high school trip to Greece was having the time of her life drinking and waiting for a ferry in what she thought was a terminal but turned out to be somebody’s little shack of a home. Without a common language they had made her feel completely welcome. When I typed the opening line of this story into my iPhone, auto correct changed it to “trust passing.” Maybe for once, auto correct is correct.

Deja Vu
Sunday, July 23rd, 2017

Funny how being in one room can transport you instantly back to another, even if the former looks nothing like the latter. Seeing twin beds in my dear friend Stacey’s Nantucket house this weekend zipped me back to twin beds in a sleepy suburb outside of Paris, when I shared a room with my fifteen year old French counterpart, Marie, thanks to a program called The Experiment for International Living. The program’s heavy handed title implied we’d work side by side in a lab. The reality was our dizzying schedule was talking and dancing with boys. At night we dissected our options. When we woke it was like the entire world was waiting for us to walk through it in our mini skirts and pointed flats. At 4 PM we took a bus to a teen disco in the next town over. For this Boston girl, dancing with boys who had never heard of the Red Sox made me feel like I was walking on the moon. On the second to last night of my stay Marie had told me breathlessly as we stared at the ceiling from our twin beds, that I was about to meet the boy whom she loved beyond all others. We went out to dinner in a large group and she gave me the honor of sitting me on his right. While I have no memory of what he looked like, I remember suddenly feeling his hand on my knee by dessert. He left a little piece of paper with an address. He wanted me to sneak out the next day while Marie was at her piano lesson and meet him in Paris. The next memory I have is taking the train to Paris, punchy with guilt and glee. We spent the afternoon walking. A toy on a sidewalk fair caught my eye: an idyllic hilltop village made of tin with a train weaving past the charming houses from top to bottom and then starting over again. How easy it made life seem just when it was starting to get hard. He bought me the toy. And I never saw him or Marie again, even though I felt I loved them both dearly for however fleeting. I said good night to Stacey and stared at the ceiling in the dark. A ferry horn sounded far off as I allowed the train to start at the top of my mind and weave its way to the bottom and then begin again.

Barnhouse blog #7
Friday, February 10th, 2017

As forgotten layers on the property get stripped away, more of its former lives are revealed: an old empty vault, a curious little door knocker that still makes a snappy sound (which I intend to transplant even if its minuscule size will look silly on the new front door) a guest instruction sheet from the Lake Waramaug association circa the 40s, listing places to shop and leisurely activities in the area thumbtacked behind a random door in the barn, (will also be framed) and a beautiful wood sleigh bed. We had literally been discussing about finding some kind of daybed that would go on the main floor of the barn by a window for catnapping and reading. I can’t wait to assemble and polish it till it glows. It’s almost like the past has patiently been waiting in the wings to seize its moment back on stage in a new role.

Barnhouse Blog #6
Monday, January 30th, 2017

Barnhouse Blog #6 There’s a moment when you’re deep in the middle of rehearsing a play where the joy of beginning is as far away as the euphoria of opening night, that a director once told me was called “Uglyville.” Our neighbor’s new construction and now – surprise! guest house garage – doesn’t seem to be getting any nearer to completion and the near constant echo of their hammers has become taunting. Each cold day unfolds with gray uncertain skies that seem more symbolic of the mood of much of this country rather than seasonal. And in my tiny corner of it, the reality of ripping out old cabinets, shag carpet, cracked yellow tile and filling dumpsters with the detritus of someone else’s discarded life before building my own, definitely feels like Uglyville. I know it’s a deep privilege to be in the middle of a creative process with the common goal being pleasure. So I turn up the music to cover the sound of bulldozers and I go on Pinterest and pick images I want to transform the now empty rooms in to and feel a little closer to opening night. The demo guys who started this morning in the guest house handed me two tarnished brass trophy labels they found on the floor. One was from 1965 and the other from 1975. I took a picture of them and asked the former owner if he’d like them sent to him. He emailed back with much surprise and appreciation that I would take the time to ask about his “mediocre baseball career” and that I could toss them. I keep thinking how I was a baby in crib near Boston while he was running bases here in the fields of Connecticut. As they peel back the old linoleum tile in his kitchen and I am deciding what kind of floors I want to put back down, it occurs to me that I’m as much creating a future archaeological site as renovating. Who will find what of mine long after I’m gone? I am keeping the plaques not necessarily because I think he’s going to change his mind but because they will remind me of this question. #barnhouseblog

Barn House Blog #5
Monday, January 23rd, 2017

In which the sign for our property arrives! It’s one of those big small things. In much the way animals like to mark their territory I suppose humans do too. It reinforces our place in the world and makes us feel safe. I am beyond lucky to have this luxury. A simple wood sign made by a kind and patient stranger in Niagara Falls I found on Etsy to help guide future strangers and friends to find our new house feels like the best kind of karma. I hope someday it will guide Anne @woodfinds to our door so I can thank her in person. In which our town permit and zoning meeting is canceled yet again for inclement weather that never happened. We can’t start until we have their nod so in an effort to reassert my control over mother nature and red tape, I go down the rabbit hole of finding the perfect white. An online village helps me narrow the hundreds of seemingly identical whites down. Throughout the process I keep reminding myself that Eskimos have 50 words for “snow” and in English we have more or less one word for”patience.” I also go online to get velvet samples for our living room sofas for a house that has not even been approved yet. Meanwhile Jo the painter, a.k.a. the actor Kevin James, began painting the old new kitchen cabinets after we settled upon @benjaminmoore Wrought Iron. Ordered brass hardware to pair. Joe thinks this is a brilliant combination. Don’t have the heart to tell him it wasn’t my idea: I’m just copying the 10,000 other examples I’ve seen on Pinterest this week. But at the end of the day nobody else has our Pinnacle Valley sign and house number and for that I am so grateful. #barnhouseblog

Barn House Blog #4
Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

I don’t watch The Bachelorette, but I suspect that my current task of choosing a white for the guest house walls isn’t entirely dissimilar: I need a hue mate that has extreme compatibility, longevity, yummy warmth and a glamorous spirit without an overbearing attitude. Oh and no muddy undertones. The longer I look at them, the more the choices start to look the same. I am immensely grateful to the thousands of people who weigh in on their favorites on blogs and via magazines but the decision ultimately must be mine. I’ve been whittling it down to a favorite via some sample dating, but I am ashamed to admit how I sometimes am attracted to a contestant merely for their pretty name ( ie; Lily of the Valley over Simply White.) I know paint isn’t a human. But there are hundreds to choose from and The Bachelorette only has to pick from appx 30 guys. And we both have to live with our choices. That is, until next season. #barnhouseblog

Barn House Blog #3
Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

Barnhouse blog Week #3: in which I test drive some modern bathtub shapes and realize I’m never going back to the clawfoot days. In which I realize that our painter Joe looks EXACTLY like Mall Cop’s Kevin James and therefore it’s sometimes hard not to start giggling when we discuss hardware dimensions. Joe will begin repainting the old / new cabinets this week so they’ll be ready to install in the guest house. In which new BFF Rebecca at Northwest Flooring inspires me. Even on a dreary Monday morning she’s always dressed in cute black shawls and boots and jewelry and I make sure to put on a fresh coat of lipstick before I go in for the 4th time to tell her our “final choice!” Instead of cork (may be too corky and too quirky – sounds the same!- for such an expanse) that we may go with new HD vinyl flooring. Choices are surprisingly elegant not to mention waterproof and absorb radiant heat beautifully and look exactly like wood. Husband worries he will feel shame with every man who walks across our threshold and is told planks actually vinyl. So I’m alerting any future male visitors now that real men may not need real wood in the area. With the weather and the project in this kind of unsexy way station, it’s important to treat one’s eye to the equivalent of a spa day: basking in the healing powers of Oberto Gili’s house in Italy in this month’s AD is such a thing.I’ve been lucky enough to visit this house and to me it’s everything a home should be: layered personal, whimsical and full of life from roses to donkeys to dogs. I almost feel like a fraud going online shopping for velvet sofas that will try to capture that old world spirit. But like I’ve always said: design is one of the few places where it’s OK to plagiarize because exact duplication is impossible. That being said, I may have some convincing to do with husband that it’s OK to hang artwork below the knee line in our bedroom…

Barn House Blog #2
Saturday, January 14th, 2017

Barn House Blog Entry #2: The part where you work on your house virtually because there’s nothing you can do in reality while permits wait to be approved. So you cobble together inspiration and resourcing from a village of experts to feel more in control. For the guesthouse kitchen cabinets, you buy a pair of new cabinets that are being ripped out of a new house nearby by a newer owner who is tearing down the house to build an even newer house. Will paint them a comforting gray (decided on hue by googling “Designers’ Favorite Grays” and then lied to painter that you had seen a sample in real life when he asked if you were sure. You will add brass hardware found on eBay and slather the kitchen dingy walls with white paint. You are especially pleased to see this vibe works via a recent Instagram posted by designer @grantkgibson. You remember @alexahamptoninc using cork flooring in her amazing NYC apartment you just shot with @quintessence and suggest this is a viable option for the barn flooring to husband in lieu of costly, finicky wood. He is surprisingly game. Dog helps consult cork brochure with you. Depressed since boys have left to go back to school so trudge over to new property in snow storm to be reminded of its reality. Stunned to see that in the course of a few weeks a neighbor’s brand-new and very large weekend house has shot up on the once bare hill in full view of guest house. For some ridiculous reason think of Trump looming behind Hillary Clinton at the debates. Soothe self by reinforcing boundaries. At the base of our new driveway (which is at the end of shared driveway with existing house) there used to be a Pinnacle Valley sign nailed to a tree. Email former owner who explains he’s taken it with him to North Carolina for memory’s sake. Middle of night go on Etsy and design a new sign which will hopefully greet visitors for generations to come. When the artisan asks if she should treat wood to make it look old, you tell her you’d rather the sign earn its years. #barnhouseblog