By Gabrielle. Photos by Bela Lumo Photography.
If you’ve ever been tempted to move to Florida but were waiting for just one more sign that it’s a brilliant idea, here’s your sign. To convey to you as accurately as possible that Blythe loves Florida, I would have to write it like this: BLYTHE LOVES FLORIDA! Although I’d need a few hundred additional exclamation points and maybe a few billboards to really get her point across!
To me, it’s pure delight when someone loves the place they live; I always seem to gravitate toward those people, don’t you? Blythe is no exception. She loves her plot, is over the moon about her family and career, and has such a fresh approach to the how and why she decorates her family’s home with meaningful-to-them objects. Oh, and the way she describes teaching To Kill a Mockingbird to her students gave me goosebumps.
This is a good way to spend some time today, Friends. I really hope you enjoy Blythe’s tour.
Q: Please introduce us to your family!
A: Hi, readers! We are the Grossmanns: Nathan, Blythe, Cora, and Cassandra.
Nathan is my husband, our provider in the most literal sense: he spends any free time he can out in the woods or on the water, trying to lure in whatever animal he can! He justifies this hobby by saying he’s harvesting and contributing to our dinner table, and using the animal products in the most extensive way he can – more on that later – but essentially, he is just a free spirit who needs to connect with the wilderness on a regular basis. Nathan is thoughtful in a quiet way, spending lots of time teaching Cora how to work on a boat, or to crack open a coconut, or painting her nails. He and I started dating back in high school. Even then I was drawn to his quiet strength, his appreciation for our home state, and his odd sense of humor. Those things haven’t changed, nor has my affection for them.
If I’m going in chronological order, I’m next. My name is Blythe and I teach English at our local high school. It is a calling as much as a career. I absolutely love books, love sarcastic, boisterous, bighearted teenagers, and I absolutely love my job. I am also a mama, obviously, and this certainly doesn’t come secondary, although that comes as a bit of a surprise to me. I never thought I would need to have kids – Nathan and I both were doing just fine without them – and yet, coming to feel so passionately about parenthood has been the sweetest surprise of my life.
On to the kids! Cora is four years old, and never fails to astonish me with just how thoughtful she can be. Case in point: my grandmother succumbed to a long illness last night and when I told Cora today that she had passed away, her first response was, “Mama, we need to keep visiting her house. All of her friends [she lived in a small assisted living facility] will be sad and we need to take them cupcakes and maybe sing to them.” Of course, she’s right…but the fact that her heart always goes towards others is something that I find both inspirational and comforting. In addition to being tender-hearted and generous, Cora is many other things, including dramatic! Nary a day goes by without her losing her mind over something: the house burning down, getting stung by a bee, misplacing a marker, or me looking at her the wrong way are equally tragic and ALL garner the same reaction. Loud crying. Yeah, it’s…awesome. Not at all exhausting. Perhaps one of the things I love most about Cora is her lack of squeamishness. This is maybe a classic case of nurture beating out nature, but Cora is very casual about catching lizards, playing with earth worms, and eating dirty carrots straight from the garden. Cora is so in tune to nature and has such a great appreciation for every living, growing thing; she knows where her food comes from, delights in helping us grow it in our backyard garden, and I think that’s just cool.
Last but certainly not least, there’s Cassandra, more often referred to as Tickle Baby or, and I’m sure we’ll regret this, just Tickle. For whatever reason, Cora started calling her that when I was pregnant and it just stuck! It’s hard to describe an eight-month old’s personality, but so far Tickle seems to be the calm in our storm. She has just started crawling, so she’s into EVERYTHING, but she almost never cries so long as we’re around and is just a cheerful, complacent baby in general. She’s a bit of a Mama’s girl as of now – I think nursing encourages that – but she is so interested in Cora and our dogs and the world around her. We don’t plan on having more kids, and something about this baby…maybe knowing she’s our last has made her first months some of the sweetest ones I’ve known.
Q: Where do you live, and how did your house become your home?
A: We live in Merritt Island, a smallish community on the east coast of Florida. It’s one town over from Cocoa Beach, which is more widely known. Nathan and I are both native Floridians and we grew up on opposite ends of this same county. We knew we wanted to stay local. I had grown up having Sunday dinners at my grandparents’ house, complete with the whole extended family, and I knew I wanted that for our someday family. So, straight out of college, we split the difference and bought a home smack dab between our sets of parents and called it home.
It was the stereotypical starter home: 1700 square feet, 1970s construction, and in need of lots of TLC and lacking things we’ve now come to crave (like a garage!), but it has worked for us. The selling points for me were the ginormous walk-in closet and the fact that the kitchen was relatively open. Every other house we’d seen that fit in our newlywed budget had a tiny galley kitchen and I just couldn’t picture people congregating in there. For me, the kitchen is the heart of the home and I wanted our heart to be open, busy, and full of loved ones!
So we took the leap, bought the house, ripped out all the flooring, put on a new metal roof, rewired, painted, knocked out some walls, and the house slowly but surely evolved. When we first moved in, we figured we’d be in that house for three or four years, then sell it to move on to something bigger. HA! Here we are, 11 years later, and we are still in the same home. However, we are soon closing on a new house: a change that makes me excited and scared at the same time. Leaving the home where we started our family and in which we’ve invested so much of our time, sweat, and dreams will certainly be bittersweet.
Q: What makes you love the place you live?
A: Oh my gosh, prepare yourselves, because this is a topic I could go on about for LIFETIMES.
I am passionate about Florida in general: where else do you have swamps, pine forests, fresh water, salt water, brackish water, hills, coral reefs, hammocks, scrub habitat, cowboys and space shuttles all co-mingling? (If there is such a place, don’t tell me; I’m perfectly content where I am!)
I once read a poem with the lines, “Florida, Florida, land of euphoria” and I couldn’t agree more. Thinking about the beauty of this state makes me euphoric. I grew up eating oysters straight from the river, spending weekends at mullet frys and crab boils, and Nathan and I both have a deep regard for Florida’s waterways and wildlife, so much so that we both got tattoos a few years back paying homage to this odd state: his is an outline of the state, and mine is a mullet jumping across the top of my foot. People look at our tattoos and either a) can’t fathom WHY we chose them, or b) get it immediately. I think that’s very representative of people’s reaction to Florida in general: either you love her, complete with the drenching humidity, tempestuous weather, and persistent mosquitoes, or you just can’t wrap your head around why people don’t immediately jump on 95 and head back north!
I love being able to put our boat in the water and within 20 minutes we’re either gazing at gators, relaxing on a sandbar with drinks in hand, or heading out deep to sea: we are within 15 minutes of three different waterways, and each has a very different ecosystem. I love that at random times I’ll hear my windows start to rattle and I know it’s because a rocket or (formerly) a space shuttle has just taken off from Kennedy Space Center. I love that I know every one of my neighbors, and that I can’t go to the grocery store without running into someone. For some people, this would be their worst nightmare, but I find it comforting. I love feeling like I’m a part of something bigger than myself.
We also have an awesome zoo – one of the top ten in the nation! – that was built by volunteers. Yes, volunteers! And beautiful beaches, and an extensive library system, and great schools. You may suspect bias there, but truly, our schools are amazing: they always rank at the top in the state in terms of test scores, but they also have so many programs that go beyond what can be tested. The cost of living is reasonable, the pace is slow, and the people are kind. What’s not to like?
Q: How would you describe your aesthetic? Has it changed since you found yourself in the throes of babyhood?
A: I would describe our aesthetic in several ways. First, I would say it’s very earthy for lack of a better word. As I started packing our belongings, I noticed that where other people would maybe be packing china, I was contemplating how to bubble wrap hornets’ nests and horseshoe crabs! In every aspect of our indoor life, the outdoor comes creeping in. There are mason jars full of shells collected on trips to the beach, alligator hides laying across the living room floor, urchin skeletons stacked in the bathroom window. Even the colors in our house seem to be earthy.
I would also describe our aesthetic as being very tradition-bound. That’s an odd word for an aesthetic, I know, but so much of what we own has a story behind it. My dad and uncle made our coffee table as a wedding present. As if that wasn’t meaningful enough, they used wood from our old sailboat’s hatch, our first motorboat’s bench, and my grandparent’s wine rack – could it possibly be more imbued with meaning? The Indian screen that we use as a headboard was my mom’s, a keepsake from when her parents took her to India as a teenager.
The farm table in our dining room is another family heirloom and its history has been detailed on its underside, courtesy of my grandfather and a pen! Every time I get under the table to add or remove a leaf, seeing his handwriting warms my heart. I could go on and on. In our adult lives, Nathan and I have only bought three pieces of furniture: our couch, our mattress, and a bench. Everything else has been given to us by family or pilfered from the trash, and while at times this has felt constricting and challenging in terms of fitting others’ undesirables into our aesthetic, I think in the long run it has made our home a more meaningful place.
Having kids hasn’t changed our aesthetic too much. At one point we attached plexiglass to the front of our bookshelves, but we abandoned that practice pretty early on. Baby-proofing gave way to being more watchful and less attached to our stuff.
Children have certainly added stuff to our house, though. Everything Cora sees is potential for an art project, so she hoards it away. She also has an elephant’s memory, so it’s difficult to discard anything without getting busted! Weeks after I’ve streamlined her art bin I’ll find her furiously digging, looking for a specific pipe cleaner or popsicle stick. My bad. Now she tries to check the trash before I take it out, so I’ve taken to sneaking out loads after her bedtime!
I’ve done my damnedest to make homes for all of her stuff – tupperware for dolls and ponies, bins for crayons and clay, shopping baskets for play food, etc. I want the kids to have easy access to everything they love, but there is just nothing more painful than stepping on one of Barbie’s stilettos barefooted and nothing more aggravating, to me, than picking up the same notebook for the fiftieth time that day!
I am excited about the day we can get rid of some of the baby things – Cassandra’s exer-saucer’s days are numbered and I will run that thing down to the consignment shop before you can blink! Other child-centric things will always have a place in our home, though. I love displaying homemade art work and holiday crafts brought home from preschool and finding homes for Cora’s collections – we can always find a place for more shells or flowers!
Q: What are some of your favorite pieces in your home?
I absolutely love the girls’ room. That was the first room where we started fresh. Oddly, no one in the family had an old crib or changing table, so it was a blank slate when we first turned it into Cora’s room.
Nathan drug in that giant cedar post and I was like, “Ummm…no. What are you doing?” Next thing you know, there’s a tree in Cora’s room! And, as he eagerly demonstrated, it was even strong enough to climb!
The sign that holds her name is actually a mangrove root system. Mangroves are amazing trees with these intricate roots that provide protection to juvenile critters in the river, and Nathan had found that dead bundle floating along years ago and had been saving it for the right project. Our baby was the right project, for sure! Over the years, little odds and ends have found their way into the sign, mostly things that hold significant memories of little outings. I wanted Cassandra’s sign to echo Cora’s, but not too closely. I couldn’t find any decent driftwood, nor did Nathan have any lying about, so I set my mom and aunt on the task. After a few days of beach-combing, they found the perfect piece.
Q: Tell us about your work!
A: Nathan and I both work outside the home. He is a fire inspector which means investigating fires, checking buildings for safety compliance, reviewing blue prints. It’s quite glamorous! Not. As I said before, I am a teacher. I teach ninth and tenth grade English as well as AP Literature in a public high school. I also occasionally teach a night class at the local community college, although I’ve put that on the back burner since having Cassandra. I’ll probably start back up in the fall, though.
Teaching is such a fulfilling practice. Every day I get to ham it up in front of teenagers, to hear about what makes their worlds go ‘round, to talk nerdy to them about stories that have changed my life. I am an extremely social person, and teaching has also given me an outlet to talk and engage and let my sarcastic self have full reign without having to worry about wearing Nathan’s ears out.
We are finishing To Kill a Mockingbird in my freshman classes today – this is my 11th year teaching the novel and I STILL get excited about reading it with them. That’s the beauty of teaching; every year is a new year, where I can reinvent myself and improve on who I was the year before. Every group of kids is a new audience, a new sponge that you get to help fill and wring out and fill again. And that collective gasp when they finally meet Boo Radley…it just never gets old.
Our home’s location, in a way, has impacted my professional life. Our backyard backs up to the practice soccer field, so there are always soccer and lacrosse players yelling ‘hey’ when we’re out back. Our old basset hound, Bob, even famously lapped the cross country team one time as they cut through our yard! More than anything, our home is a refuge from our professional lives. Teaching is an easy career to bring home with you, but I try to separate the two to some extent.
I try to leave grading at work and to find things to talk about other than my students, but there is definitely evidence of my job at home: we have an ungodly amount of books threatening each surface and I’m pretty proud of that! We seem to read every day, which I’m sure is the case in many homes, but I think Cora will be quite a reader if her current interest in books is any indication. I truly hope both kids turn out to be readers because I think reading is not only a joy, an escape, a solace – it’s also a way to build empathy, which is so important. Stepping off my soap box now!
Q: Okay. Taxidermy! It’s all over your home!
A: I totally get the resistance to taxidermy. I don’t know that I love it – just that it has become a part of our story.
My parents are collectors of sorts. Growing up, we were constantly picking up bird bones, fish vertebrates…they seemed as much like treasure as flowers and cool rocks did, so I guess in that way I was prepared to not be grossed out by dead animals. When I met Nathan, he was into surfing. I got that; my dad is an avid surfer, so much so that he won’t make plans with you for the day ‘til he’s checked the surf. Nathan also fished. Well, fishing on the river turned into duck hunting. That segued into deer hunting out on the river banks. And hog hunting. And then, all of a sudden, there was gator hunting and I was like, how on Earth did we arrive here?!
If you had told me 15 years ago that we would have skulls in our home and gator meat in our freezer, I would have given you a weird look, for sure. When Nathan started hunting, first it was all about the meat. I learned how to cook wild game and, honestly, I enjoyed the challenge. I love cooking and this appealed to my need for creativity. I take a lot of pride and satisfaction in knowing that the meat we eat comes from an animal that was allowed a good, full life – a free life. I know what I’m feeding my kids is as natural as it can be, as fresh as can be, and that it was killed in as humane a fashion as is possible. I’m not trying to romanticize what is indeed a violent act…just explaining that, for me, this is the best possible scenario for an omnivore.
However, Nate was dismayed by the waste. The hides, the bones…they were just being disposed of. And Nate is a creative soul fueled by a deep curiosity. He is constantly making things for around the home, sometimes ornamental but usually functional. I think for him, taxidermy was a natural extension of hunting and a way to master something new. First he learned an old Native American method of tanning alligator hides. He started using the leather for all kinds of things, from making bracelets to coolie cups. Then he started preserving the skulls.
Now, things often show up on our doorstep – people drop off snakes they’ve run over, coyotes they’ve shot, birds they’ve found on the side of the road. Nathan tries to make something beautiful or useful from all of it. He has given so many things to local educational groups, from Outward Bound, which my sister works with, to friends who work for Parks and Rec. He has a real passion for education and uses his alligator claws and teeth to teach both children and adults about the amazing biology, adaptability, and endurance of these reptiles. Did you know alligators grow teeth within their teeth? So that when they lose one, there’s another right there ready to use? How cool is that?! (Humor me: it’s cool, right?)
I guess some people could come in our house and think it’s a little morbid that there’s a gator sporting deer antlers hanging out on the counter, or that Cora’s comfortable inviting a stuffed raccoon to her tea parties, but no one has voiced that opinion. From a stewardship standpoint, I think it’s kind of cool that we’re trying to use as much of the animal as is possible, and that our kids will be very aware of what it means to be a meat eater. We’re trying to be good stewards and to face our actions, in a way, and somehow that has snuck into our aesthetic. I do hope that our skulls and hides demonstrate a reverence for God’s creation – in all stages – and that people don’t perceive it as an insensitivity to death.
I do have to say, though, I told Nathan that this new house will have a few less hides! The garage will be housing some of his larger projects.
Q: What has been your favorite part about living with your own kids? What has surprised you the most about being a mom?
A: As I said before, I never felt that I needed to have kids. We were married seven years before we even discussed the idea at length. I felt like life was full enough without kids. And yet…oh my gosh, I can’t imagine going back. I guess my favorite part has been the constant, consistent love. Cora told me once, “love never leaves” and isn’t that true?
My heart is full to overflowing with love for our little family. I’ve loved getting to eavesdrop on Cora’s imaginative play, hearing the words she makes up to explain or describe things, and feeling needed on a daily basis – which is a double-edged sword, but it makes me feel alive. I’ve loved re-learning the importance of everything, from making cookies and waiting for a carrot to get big enough to pick, to counting down to a grandparent’s birthday. For Cora, it is all equally amazing and worthy of notice.
I’ve also loved getting to see Nathan as a father. Even when he and I are at odds, he is always tender with our daughters. We’ve been together our entire adult lives and there have been trying moments where insecurity has overwhelmed me, but seeing him with our kids serves as a constant reminder of how big his heart is, how constant his commitment.\
Maybe the most surprising thing about being a mom is seeing how intentionally I channel my mom. I spend a lot of moments not just hearing my mom come out of my mouth, but TRYING to hear her! My mom is an endless fount of patience and good humor, and so I am constantly trying to summon her words, her reaction. Whenever I can add in a dose of my mom, it certainly only makes life better!
Q: If they could remember just one memory from this childhood home – and you as their mom – what do you hope it would be?
A: I hope they remember being given free reign. I don’t want to be a micromanager or to place too many restrictions on the kids’ play. I love doing things with my kids, but I want them to have plenty of time and space to let their own imaginations roam. I don’t want my personal narrative to get in the way of theirs.
I hope, more than anything, that both girls remember my love as being endless, limitless, unwavering. Cora made me a Valentine’s card that said “I love you because you are happy and smart.” While both compliments touched my heart, the former was so much more flattering. Before I had kids, I always hoped my future children would be smart, but now I think it’s more important to be kind. I hope the girls see that in me: joy and kindness and compassion.
I hope Cora remembers planting her garden each season, and being allowed to pick to her heart’s content. I hope she remembers lying on the boat out in the driveway at night, watching the satellites zoom by. I hope she remembers how much she has been loved by the people on our street. I hope she remembers caring for her chickens, camping in the backyard, playing soccer out on the field, and the family members who have graced our home.
I cheated: you said one memory, but that’s impossible!
Q: Please finish the sentence: I wish someone had told me…
A: I can’t think of anything I wish someone had told me. I have an amazing community of family and friends that prepared me pretty well for parenting, I think.
Instead, all that comes to mind are all the oh-so-true things people DID tell me: that it all goes by so quickly; that you will be able to love the second just as much as the first; that you will be terrified by feeling responsible for two little lives; that you will wish you owned stock in Band-Aid; that if you wait ‘til you can afford it, you’ll never be ready. I think I heard all of this along the way, but of course hearing these truths and living them are two very different things, aren’t they?
Aha! Maybe this: I wish someone had told me that being a mother would make me want to be a better person. If they had, I might have jumped into it sooner. Nothing has made me more desirous of acting with integrity, selflessness, and compassion than knowing my daughters are watching me. Their watchful eyes inspire me to do better, be kinder, laugh more, and forgive quicker. I don’t always succeed, but I try to get it right.
Oh, Blythe! There is so much loveliness in your thoughts. They made my day better. I found your explanation of why taxidermy is such a big part of your aesthetic so fascinating and thoughtful; it’s completely reflective of how you’re living life, so of course it’s part of your decor! Authenticity is always on-trend. And I’ve thought about this line a lot: “I do hope that our skulls and hides demonstrate a reverence for God’s creation – in all stages – and that people don’t perceive it as an insensitivity to death.”
Friends, I have to ask: How many of you nodded your heads when you read that Blythe never felt like she needed to have kids and that her life was full enough without them? Whether you’ve ended up with kids or not, isn’t it funny when we think we know exactly how life should play itself out? There are surprises around every corner, don’t you think? Like Blythe’s thought “Cora made me a Valentine’s card that said ‘I love you because you are happy and smart.’ While both compliments touched my heart, the former was so much more flattering. Before I had kids, I always hoped my future children would be smart, but now I think it’s more important to be kind.” Lovely, lovely, lovely.