By Gabrielle. Photos by Shannon Quinn.
Emily wrote to me after a friend introduced her to Design Mom. In her words, “I loved seeing real people living their creative lives with their kids. Seeing the lives people have put together throughout your Home Tours section — one beautiful map, accessible shelf, and cool color at a time, but all clearly real, worked for, and functional — has kept me up into the wee hours. And your invitation to participate has inspired me to write. I feel like your blog is filled with friends I haven’t met. I’d love to share my own home and story and join the party.”
There was a big yes from me, and crossed fingers that she’d send beautiful photos and more gorgeous words — and she sure didn’t let me down on either front! You’re going to find such love in this one.
Emily, welcome to the party!
Hello, everyone! I’m Emily. I live with my 11 year old son Jasper, and he lives with me, his 52 year old mama. He is passionate about soccer, has just listened to the Harry Potter series without pause, draws animals, is learning to put the salsa away after using it, and to take a shower more than once a week. He is also deeply perceptive, smart, and has won almost every hand of Rummy 500 he has ever played. We are both good listeners and are always in the mood for a good story.
Every night we read together at bedtime. It always feels like just the moment we have waited for, snuggling under the heavy covers talking about the day, asking questions. Was China an ally during WW2? If you have written a book about yourself is it a biography? We just finished Birds, Beasts and Relatives, the second in the series by Gerald Durrell about his family’s time on Corfu, just before the war. I loved loving this funny, articulate portrait with Jasper, laughing at the same passages, absorbing the same beautiful descriptions of the sea breaking into a galaxy of stars as the moon’s light shone onto its surface.
On my last birthday, a friend welcomed me to my full deck year, and that has felt both auspicious and right; Life feels very comfortable and sweet these days. I am passionate about my kid, my deep and many friendships, and my work. I have been supporting myself as a designer and maker of jewelry and of Judaica for 25 years. I am also a reckless but avid gardener who believes in moving things around, a lot.
Cooking for me is both reflexive and joyful. Standing at the stove feels like my rightful place, and when friends come over for dinner, it’s the spot from which I visit. At an early age, I was trained by my mom and my grandma to thrift shop and antique. So my house is filled with finds that tell not only a story of my aesthetic, but also of the day I found them, usually with my mom in some little shop or from the acres of Brimfield booths we visit twice a year. I find objects intriguing as well as pleasing. How they reflect their time or how their maker turns them into storytellers. Who made that sampler? Who originally — and perhaps without irony — owned that Native American couple statuette?
Though my mom, Joyce, does not live in my house, she lives near it and we drift in and out of each other’s homes on an almost daily basis. I could not have gotten luckier in the mom department. She is the most truly accepting person I know and throws the best dinner parties, with votives glowing in old crystal glasses and great conversation sparkling around the table. She has been a dancer, a teacher, a therapist, an artist, a saleswoman, and most recently an Airbnb host. And, of course, a fabulous grandmother with treasure troves of art supplies, a great sense of humor, and powerful love to give and give.
We live in Florence, Massachusetts, a village within the very cool town of Northampton, home to Smith College. It is a deeply progressive community — filled with artists, creative thinkers, farmers — and is the only city to have its trash hauled away by a bicycle collective! It was a Utopian community in the 1840s, home to abolitionists and pioneering activists like Sojourner Truth; I think those deep roots continue to shape the area today. Within a ten minute walk we have, among other things, the very swimmable Mill River, an independently owned hardware store cum general store, the library, playing fields, community gardens, Miss Flo’s diner, a Pie Bar, and a brewery. Our street is a block long with clapboard houses dating back to the 1880s. During our own renovation, we found newspaper that had been used for insulation, dated 1887.
Our block is close-knit and very friendly. Our kids play together and some of my closest friendships have developed here. My dear friend Mary lives across the street and is the person who originally anchored me here. Magically, my neighbor Lise opened a Reggio Emilia inspired in-home preschool, right when I needed one. Jasper went there, and Lise and her daughter have become like family.
Even with the neighbors who are private, there is a connection. Last night, I came home dreading the six inches of heavy snow I needed to shovel, to find that my shy neighbor Joe, the grandpa of Jasper’s good friends, a man who barely nods hello, had cleared the whole thing and the sidewalk, as well! In every way it is a sweet little street to have landed on.
I bought my house in 2000, right before prices exploded and after three especially good years of catalogues featuring my work. I feel very lucky to have gotten my place for just a little over $125,000, although much and very unsexy foundation work had to be done at great expense and huge effort — almost all of it by Jasper’s dad! But now there is almost nothing in my neighborhood for twice that amount, but lots for much more.
I chose my house the weekend after my 37th birthday. The night of my birthday, at 11 o’clock, the woman I was renting from came out to break up the quiet dinner party I had set up in the yard under lanterns and candle light. I was suddenly and completely finished being a tenant. My mom was visiting and encouraged me to call a realtor. We saw houses that needed a lot of work. Then my friend Mary called to say her neighbors were putting their house on the market the following week. The house was not only across the street from my dear but around the corner from my studio building. They were away but she had the key if I wanted to take a look. My mom and I spent an hour alone in the house!
Despite wall to wall carpeting, valances on every window, and my own anxiety at taking such a big step, it felt right. I saw as many more houses as I could in that week and decided this was the one. The owner sold it to me, probably for a little more than I should have paid, but it felt direct and easy. After my building inspection, scared about making a huge mistake, I asked the building inspector if I should buy it. Carefully and kindly he said, “It was a house built over 100 years ago for mill workers to afford. Now it is something an artist can afford.” I am so glad I did it!
I love the scale of my house. It is about 1100 square feet and the rooms are just big enough, though I wish the ceilings were about a foot higher. Half the house has beautiful light. My bedroom windows frame the sunrise. My kitchen is flooded with light all afternoon and its windows frame the sun as it sets behind the hills. The other half of the house is pretty dark and right next to a neighboring house; those curtains I just never open.
I’ve had some good surprises. When I took out the carpets, there was wide pine flooring in the front, oldest section. I had the battleship grey paint stripped and the honey colored planks that remained immediately made the house warm and filled it with character. Jasper’s dad, Keith, added on to what was a tiny kitchen to make the heart of our house. It is where you enter and it is where you stay. There is a couch, and a kitchen table, games, artwork, Jasper’s snow globes, and my stovetop altar made from a carved antique Indian lintel. Keith made the cabinet faces to look like they were from the 1930s and happened to have the perfect deco handles, and enough of them to finish the look perfectly. I based the cabinet color on Fiesta Ware orange, the one made with uranium.
I’ve also had some bad surprises! The foundation did not need re-pointing but essentially replacing. If I could wave a magic wand, I would add a working fireplace to the living room and a bathroom upstairs. Also maybe a stone patio for the backyard if the magician is feeling generous. Maybe someday.
I am a designer who makes jewelry and also Judaica. I sell to stores, at craft shows, and through my website. I have been self-employed since I was 27 and feel incredibly grateful to be part of the American craft world. I started my business from a murphy bed closet in Oakland, California after graduating with an English degree and no desire to teach. It was so hard to claim that space when I had no craft to speak of! It has been a pretty cool journey to my fourth floor studio overlooking the Mill River.
I make work that I want to wear, and that reflects what’s going on in my life. When Jasper turned two and I started traveling to shows without him, I needed to make myself something that was about him, that was a reminder and a connector. So, I designed a delicate ID style bracelet on which I stamped his name and birthday, combined with a bar that said Love. When he was four and learning his letters, he got that my bracelet was about him. For the next year or so he would play with it while we read, fingering the letters, saying them out loud. I have had that bracelet on for nine years and never take it off.
I have expanded to include multi charm necklaces, and these personalized pieces have become a primary focus of my line. I am in love with being able to tell personal stories with charms, gems, names, words, and initials. When customers share with me why they have chosen a certain collection of charms it can be incredibly moving; crying is not unheard of in my booth at craft shows.
I can see my studio building from my kitchen window. It’s a former mill that made toothbrushes, and now houses about 80 artists, craftspeople, and small businesses. Every day, I walk into my big corner studio, with huge windows on two walls, and feel thankful. It is my second home. For me designing is energizing and deeply satisfying, and the bursts that happen to create a new collection for wholesale markets is inspiring and sustaining. But I also love the daily work of making, of sitting at my bench cleaning up castings, setting stones, and stamping names into personalized pieces.
My assistant, Anya and I are fantastic team and she is a huge part of why I enjoy my day and how I sustain my business. There would be no designing and making without showing and selling. I really enjoy this part of the process. My retail shows let me connect directly to customers, which nourishes me in an incredibly important way, not just financially. Seeing people respond to and ultimately buy what I make is not only gratifying, it animates the work and brings it fully into being. Doing shows mean I travel at least one long weekend a month, but it is a routine that I am used to and that has been part of Jasper’s life from the beginning. I like that he sees me committed to what I do and that he knows that it is what supports us.
My style is eclectic for sure. It is anchored in vintage finds and colors that pop. I’m definitely drawn by the story an object tells as well as by how it looks. My assumption is, if I love it, it can be friends with the other things I’ve chosen. So in my room, a water color of camellias from the 20s hangs near a framed handwritten list I found in Italy, hearts by ceramicist Sara Bressem, a huge self portrait in ink, acrylic, and glitter by Jasper, an old five-cent grocery store price sign and painted banner by Amy Johnquest, the Banner Queen.
Even though I have lots of things to look at, I want the overall feeling of my house to be soothing, so that it feels inviting and intriguing at the same time. There is something in every room that Jasper has made. As an enthusiastic and devoted mom, integrating his creativity and expression into the mix of my collections has been satisfying and necessary. Kids are prolific! But also I think it’s great for Jasper to see some of his own work chosen and used in the house; that I appreciate it for real.
It is just in the past year that Jasper has started to curate the look of his room. When a huge dragon that he made from a slice of bark needed a home, he decided where it would go and what needed to come down to make it fit. I loved taking down the prints I picked when he was a baby to make way for this new creation and this new stage. We are both people who like stuff; he gets it from both his dad and I. He makes careful arrangements of his menageries of lego constructions, geodes, and felt animals, and the countless and shifting stray bits. Arrangements have also become his signature cleaning style. On appointed clean up mornings he will order the coffee table jumble into a kind of store display of books, magazines, and a choice game or two. I love how conscious it is and how inviting he makes the objects!
I had Jasper at 41, just in the nick of time. And though we ended up doing in vitro after two ectopic pregnancies, the process seemed strangely easy for being so hard.
After my first doctor, with all the sensitivity of a stone, drew me two pictures, one of the plump ovaries and eggs of a twenty year old, and one of the shriveled ovaries and dried eggs of a 40 year old, I lost my sadness and fear and got determined. We got lucky with the first attempt and then the pregnancy became mine. I could move away from the intensely medical world into the hands of a midwife group I trusted and an acupuncturist I loved. Oddly, I felt more comfortable in my body than I ever had. I worked and did yoga right till the end. Although one show, during my tired first trimester, I had to sleep in the grass behind my booth while my mom took care of customers.
The day I went into labor I had plans to meet with my friend, Sara, who was going to my most important wholesale show for me because it fell on my due date. We were going to go over all the important stuff. My water broke at five in the morning and slight contractions started an hour later. Keith and I were giddy. Just as I was trying to go back to sleep, I remembered Sara. At 7:00 am I got up and started writing down every detail for her, then called her and went over it all. I realized that the minute I started working, all the contractions stopped. After we finished, within the hour they started again and at four in the afternoon, Jasper was born in the birthing tub, just as I had hoped.
Although I had always pictured having a baby earlier — 36 was my ideal age — as always, things worked out just as they needed to. That my professional life was firmly established has allowed me to parent and maintain my creative life. It also meant I could take care of us in that real world kind of way.
I’ve been single parenting for the last two years. Even though I only have one, very easy, reasonable, organized kid, there are still a lot of balls to keep in the air. My biggest challenge is to run my full time business often on part time hours. I have an amazing community of friends: at work, through Jasper’s school, old friends, dear friends who are there for me and for us in little and big ways! And, I have my secret weapon: my mom. She helps catch the loose ends, like when he’s sick and can’t come to the grocery store or the studio. When I’m at shows, Jasper is always with his dad, which maintains our family’s pattern and gives great continuity and support. Then there is the pretty simple, easy rhythm that Jasper and I have. I feel like it carries us.
I also leave dishes in the sink and leave the laundry unfolded — this is the key to my success! My priority is to get done what I need to, then have time with Jasper. I am really ok with what I can’t get done.
Picking a favorite thing about living with my son is too hard. I am in awe of the closeness that keeps growing between us. Every stage feels like the one that I will miss, but as he develops and matures, the richness of my experience of and with him deepens. It also becomes more broad.
The thing I’m afraid of missing is the intimacy of how connected we are. My goal is that his world keeps getting bigger, wider, more full. Right now it breaks my heart to think of not being central to him. But we aren’t there yet. When Jasper was about to start kindergarten, he asked me about college: what it was, how it worked.
“But I wouldn’t live with you?” he asked haltingly from his carseat. “Then I don’t think I want to go to college,” he decided after I explained the concept.
“Luckily,” I said, “you don’t go to college when you are five. You go when you are 18 and are ready to move!” Who knows how I will feel when he is 18. Right now I am happy to have my 11 year old want me to run my fingers through his hair as he falls asleep and teach him how to make a quesadilla. I’m glad that bridge is years from having to be crossed.
I hope that Jasper remembers this time in our lives together, in our home, as happy. That completely trite and simple wish actually feels like the ultimate goal. I hope he remembers me being game: to play hacky sack soccer, a game he invented and I have never won, to listen to his playlist, to watch his newest soccer move. I hope my tired edginess is less front and center when he looks back on now — that, and the how smelly the refrigerator sometimes gets.
I wish someone had told me that when our family reconfigured, that I would not be alone. Well, actually I knew that first hand; I was raised by a single mom whose remarkable group of friends were our family and I never wanted it to be any other way. But, in the face of my own separation, the sadness and loss were edged with a growing panic that I would have to do everything by myself.
Not only would I have to care for Jasper’s heart but I’d also have to clean the gutters! I would fixate on the most mundane tasks, like mowing the lawn, and think, “I won’t be able to do this…” It was paralyzing and absolutely terrifying.
The good news is I am not living on a desert island, alone with my boy. As my life with Jasper unfolds, my community of friends has only gotten more involved, more precious. They help with the logistics of school and work, we spend holidays together and vacations, too. And what I experienced in my own childhood, Jasper is experiencing now. He has adults, in addition to his parents who love him, from whom he can learn and with whom he can explore ideas and interests. He has a circle of amazing role models to help him grow into his best self.
Jasper’s world has gotten bigger and mine has, too. I could not have guessed how good it would feel to see him fall in love with other grown ups. I also could not have guessed how how ok Jasper and I are, just us. We are fine, we are together, and we have many arms waiting to catch us or shovel our driveway if the need be.
Thank you so much, Emily! Northampton sounds lovely, as does the life you’ve created for you and yours. The scenes captured in these photographs would make for a really fantastic treasure hunt book! I spy with my little eye a kewpie doll, three pirate ships, and a snowy arch. Your turn!
I read the way you described getting pregnant at over 40 at least two times: “…the process seemed strangely easy for being so hard.” That seemed so poetic and just right to me, so thank you. Your home and mindset were exactly what I needed today.
P.S. – Are you living with your own kids in a unique way? Are you interested in sharing your home and experiences with us? Let me know! We love to be inspired! And it’s a lot of fun…I promise! I should also mention, I have a goal to bring more diverse points of view to Design Mom this year. So if you don’t see yourself or your community reflected here, let’s make it happen — send in your details, or recommend a friend! Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.