what my mom taught me about making a home

From as far back as I can remember my Mom was extremely frugal, rarely buying anything new. That may be why the same orange-and-brown plaid sofa and walnut end tables show up in so many of our family photos, and that those same green towels she got as a wedding gift were still in her closet when she died three decades later.

And while Mom spent my older siblings’ childhoods embroidering and crocheting, by the time I was old enough to remember, she was a single mother running a daycare out of our house–far too busy to sew new curtains or scout for new-to-her throw rugs at thrift stores and yard sales. To be honest, I don’t remember my mom doing much home-y stuff, at least not in the knitting/sewing/buying new furniture sense.

But though Mom didn’t spend a lot of time “decorating”, our house always felt, to me, so much more warm and cozy than any other place on earth.

My mom died almost 11 years ago, and while she had a lot of troubles while I was growing up, it was always evident that she loved keeping a home and took it seriously. So I guess it’s no surprise I’ve got a bit of a homemaking bug. I love reading home magazines and blogs, and take pleasure in creating a warm, welcoming nest for my family. With five kids we have a lot of financial responsibilities, so I don’t have a huge home-decorating budget. I will probably never have glossy granite countertops (which is just fine by me), and I’m not as naturally skilled at home decorating (or photographing said beautiful homes, either) as some of the design-y moms I follow online, but that’s OK. I like to think I’m creating my own style: one that reflects my taste and my family’s lifestyle, values and budget. And that’s definitely something I learned from my mom.

mom kathreen me

My mother, older sister, and me in our home around 1980. 

Why do I think my mom was a great homemaker? Here’s what she did right–even with limited time and resources:

  • Mom stayed away from fuss, fads, and clutter. The few knick-knacks on the mantel were things she loved and felt a connection to. Everything in the room served a purpose. There was rarely a need to buy things new, because everything–from pencils and paper to holiday decorations–were used within an inch of their lives.
  • Mom knew her strengths and, when her time and energy were limited, continued to do what she enjoyed the most and was best at. She baked a lot, especially during the holidays, focusing on her signature quick breads and the cookies she knew she could pull off well (I don’t ever remember seeing her struggle over a homemade pie crust.) She didn’t craft, except for each November when she’d pull out a stash of felt, googly eyes, and glitter, and follow an ornament pattern out of one of her Better Homes and Gardens magazines. The small things she did mattered and stayed with me as I got older (I still treasure the memory of helping glue eyes or stitch details on those Christmas ornaments.)
  • Mom valued quality and functionality over quantity or keeping up with trends. Our sofa was dated, but well-made enough to hold up to a couple of decades and four active children (plus countless daycare kids). A homemade afghan covered up most of the not-too-psychadelic 70s print. Our dining-room table was a glossy cherry, handed down from my grandma–not one of those glass ‘n brass models so popular in the 80s. It sits in my sister’s dining room today looking as good as it did back then. When I spot 80’s glass ‘n brass tables at thrift stores or yard sales today, I can’t imagine them fitting in so well two decades later.

I have more money, more free time and a whole lot more shopping options than my mother had during most of my childhood, but I’m still trying to keep in mind the things I learned from her. I still try to think carefully before I buy something (just because it’s cheap or even free doesn’t mean it’s a good fit). I try to look for quality over trendiness, and to remember to value functionality and family over aiming for some magazine-cover ideal. My taste and talents may be different from what my mom’s were, but I know that her memory lives on a little through me every time I purchase a new throw pillow–or pass it up because the ones I have at home are still perfectly good.

What did your mom teach you about turning a house into a home? What memories or lessons do you hope you’ll pass on to your kids?

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