Home & Design

Green Acre #227: Post-Holiday Greens

LittleBird Stephanie’s mantel is still covered with stuff, but now it’s bits and bobs combined with fresh greens, not holiday glitter. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

THE HOLIDAYS are finally gone from the mantel. The peacock-feather boa and birds and baubles are stashed for next year. It does take me a while to put away that boa, sigh.

In their place are small vases and glasses stuffed with sprigs of rosemary, lavender and vinca from the front yard, fern from beside the back-garden pond, and succulents pillaged from a neighbor’s yard. (These will root nicely and be moved to some patch of garden or other in the spring.) There’s a surprising amount of greenery out there for mid-January, perfect for tiny tableaux. 

While I usually quail at anything twee, I must say the mantel looks delightful with the greens mixed with a collection of wood and stone and bronze forest creatures we’ve somehow amassed, and several tea-lighted lanterns patinated with a soupçon of rust.

Stepping back in time . . . 

This was never a daytime place. Always dark and moody, the circa-1915 row house was excellent for dipping into Poe by the fireplace or, when Baby was small, Edward Gorey’s alphabet, The Gashlycrumb Tinies. 

“A is for Alice who fell down the stairs. B is for Basil assaulted by bears . . . ”

I called it comfortable, all dark wood and oriental rugs, moody colors, dim lights. The Realtor who sold it to us called it a funeral parlor. “I’d paint all that woodwork white,” he said with a shudder. 

There’s a ghost, Baby says. She used to see him in the upstairs bathroom. Her Personal Prince Pete once caught a glimpse of him too, smoking on the back porch one morning at dawn. This was not me, I swear. Neither of them is terribly alarmed by this, which I find interesting—perhaps that’s why they’re together. 

A side table holds a veritable treasure trove of Victoriana, including feathers. Chez LittleBird Stephanie, there must always be feathers. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

Some years ago a Feng Shui practitioner took a look at the living room and pronounced it a horrible place to raise a child. “So much violent imagery,” she said, growing pale and clutching her pearls. At that point, said child was in high school and appeared undamaged, but who knows. Not being even a bit shaken by ghosts may be a little bit strange. 

Pointed out were a glass cannon that once held a gallon of Courvoisier V.S.O.P. cognac, a set of vicious-looking knives in an elaborately carved wood case that my father-in-law brought back from the war, a black living-room rug patterned with warriors on horseback, and a 19th-century picture I inherited that’s made almost entirely of tiny feathers titled “Tormento de Guatemozin” above the fireplace—Guatemozin was the last Aztec emperor, who was tortured with fire. Where else but above the mantel would you hang such a treasure? 

“Indoor plants and flowers,” the Feng Shuister lectured, heels clattering up the stairs to tour the rest of the house, “have tangible benefits. They clean the air, increase oxygen, uplift the mood and increase creativity.” She also suggested I dress only in white, not black. (This never happened.)

On consideration, a consideration that took quite a few years, I decided she was correct. Out (or hidden) went most of the most violent offenders; Guatemozin and a smattering of other items remained in place. While the house is still . . . moody, it gradually lightened in spirit. Now more romantic than gothic, but greenery has softened the aura. 

A sago palm (which is not a palm, but a cycad) sits in a grand wrought-iron urn on a pedestal in the foyer. A pair of frilly parlor palms (which actually are palms) lives behind the living-room sofa, and a seven-foot schefflera is in a corner of the dining room, where it snags light from the French doors that lead to the back porch and garden. 

Most every wall is a shade of green, or floridly papered. Blousy carmine tulips flounce on a green background in the upstairs bath, grapevines with curling leaves grow on the kitchen walls. Both patterns are large, in-your-face scale, the better to be seen by the myopic.

And upstairs there is my little greenhouse, where one jasmine or other is in perennial bloom, and my parakeets—Boss, Buddy  and Anderson Cooper—flit about.

There was once a wonderful New Yorker cartoon of Poe at his desk, the raven perched on a stack of books at his side. The word bubble said, “Hullo little bird.” The caption said, “Poe on Prozac.”

Sort of like my house. 

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” likes her greenery, and her greens, indoors as well as out.


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3 thoughts on “Green Acre #227: Post-Holiday Greens

  1. Maggie Hall says:

    With secateurs (well, kitchen scissors) in hand ‘am off to get me some winter greens! Like you I live on Capitol Hill, where we’re surrounded with great bushes and hedges to “nick” from. Your column is a constant inspiration for good and “no cost” ideas to make the home more homely. I just wish I lived in an older pad – would love a ghost.

  2. cynthia tilson says:

    Delightful midwinter romp…thank you!
    Poe on Prozac? Love that imagery too!

  3. Maggie Hall says:

    With secateurs (well, kitchen scissors) in hand ‘am off to get me some greenery. Though I’m on Capitol Hill (like you) ‘am surrounded by bushes and foliage – just ripe for Winter picking. Also, so wish I had a ghost to haunt visitors with. Thank you….

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