Lace Curtains and Coffee Grinders

OUR first home in Brussels was in the middle of a row of red brick houses, each with spotless front windows and lace curtains. It reminded my husband Pierre of his parents' first house in northern France where they had the whole three floors. We had just one floor. They also had a parlor maid who slept under the roof and who kept the front windows sparkling. I didn't want a parlor maid or a three-story red brick row house. I wanted a one-story ranch house, all of wood, in a big open yard with forsythia bushes and white birch trees.

Ours was a furnished apartment including everything from a legion of laundry lines which descended from the ceiling in the bathroom to a special feather duster just for the picture frames and lamp shades. The kitchen walls were lined with all sorts of utensils, some of which I'd never seen before, and the cupboards were filled with more pots and pans than I'd ever want to use. The 12-page inventory, which I had to translate, check, and sign, listed even the number of hangers in the closets.

The apartment was on the top floor of the row house and went from the front bedroom to the back kitchen, leaving the living room in the middle without windows. Having moved to Brussels in the darkest month of winter, we avoided the middle room except as a passageway and lived mostly in the kitchen where there was a big back window. Our one-year-old son, Peter, sat on the floor and played happily with the different utensils. The soup strainer and wire whisk were his favorites, along with the old-fashioned coffee grinder which had a tiny drawer to collect the coffee.

I discovered I had my hands full just with the baby and the two flights of stairs. Whenever I wanted to go out, I had to carry Peter down all the stairs, get him into the baby carriage which fortunately I could leave in the front hall, then hold open the front door while bouncing the carriage down the five front steps. I'd do this twice daily, once in the morning to do the shopping, piling up the groceries in the carriage and wondering how I'd get everything back upstairs, and once in the afternoon to get Peter off the kitchen floor.

When number two was on her way and I started putting on extra pounds, we decided it was time to leave the row house and look for something closer to the ground, with a little yard and lots of windows.

Our second home was half of a brand new house in the outskirts of Brussels, built on a little plot of ground with a patch of grass just big enough for Peter to play outside. It still wasn't a ranch house but it was all ours, all two stories and the small backyard. This time it was not furnished, no lace curtains, no clotheslines, no old-fashioned coffee grinder. Just empty space. Friends lent us a bed, a kitchen table, four straight chairs, and a sofa. Even so our voices echoed throughout the two floors.

We had our second baby, a girl, a year and a half after the first. Pierre's parents lent us the white baby crib which they had used for their 10 babies. We gave it still another layer of paint and put it in the smallest of the empty bedrooms. We bought a child-size oak bed for Peter and put it in the second empty bedroom.

The rest of the house we furnished slowly. First we had to make up our minds whether we wanted my choice of style, Danish modern on wall-to-wall carpeting, or Pierre's choice, which was more antique.

When Pierre's grandparents gave us a large Persian carpet, I relented on the wall-to-wall carpeting but still hesitated about the furniture. Then his aunts and uncles offered us a belated wedding gift, a walnut secretary dating from the mid-1850s. It went on the Persian carpet in our living room, and I relented on the Danish modern.

Every Saturday we'd go to one of the outdoor marches aux puces and shop around for antique tables and gilded picture frames. I found myself looking forward to our weekend treasure hunts.

THE first months in our new home were fine summer months, with lots of light and lots of room, even for all Pierre's relatives from northern France. But the house was situated on the corner of two quiet roads which after the summer vacation, when everyone came back from the seaside, were transformed into two busy thoroughfares. Suddenly it seemed we were in the middle of a traffic circle. Cars swished around us day and night. Pierre started going early to work each morning just to get away from the noise, and the only place I didn't hear the cars was in the bathtub with my head under the water.

Then one morning, bliss. We even overslept. There was no noise. We listened. Nothing. It was eerie, unreal. We looked out the window. It was snowing. Over 20 centimeters of fresh snow lay on the ground. No one was expecting it. And not one car was in sight.

After the snow melted, we moved to our third home in Brussels. This time I gave up completely my idea of a ranch house. We went to the ground floor of an old stone and stucco apartment building, situated on a small side street which no one knew about and where there was no traffic. We had the courtyard in the back all to ourselves, with a pink cherry tree and a pebbled path which went around in a circle. Peter played there day after day, riding his tricycle and pulling his new red wagon. Soon his little sister would join him.

Inside the apartment the front hall was very large and grand, running the length of the apartment. I bought an electric floor waxer and when it rained outside, Peter rode his tricycle on the polished oak floors from one end to the other.

In the kitchen there was a vegetable closet built right into the outside wall, made to stay cold. It was the right temperature for potatoes. And in the bathroom, the white enameled bathtub standing on its gilded lion paws was so high that I had to get a little stepping stool for the children.

We were back in the center of the city. I made white lace curtains for the front windows and then I made them for the back windows. Pierre could walk to work so I had the car for shopping. The days were easier. I had no steps to go up and down and I no longer needed the baby carriage as a shopping bag.

Pierre's relatives still came to visit, and we had lots of Belgian friends. When there were too many of us at mealtime for the antique table in the living room, I set up card tables in the large front hall and covered them with a long embroidered tablecloth.

Soon I was expecting number three. We brought down the white baby crib from the maid's room under the roof and put still another layer of paint on it. I also brought down the carton of baby clothes. Then we decided to bring everything down and make the storage attic back into a little bedroom. We were going to have our first fille au pair. She wouldn't be a parlor maid for the front windows, but rather a mother's helper for the children.

And so the old-fashioned apartment fit us and we fit the apartment. It had taken three tries, but I was no longer thinking about a ranch house nor about modern Danish furniture. Our apartment had lace curtains and smelled of antique furniture wax. And I was beginning to grind fresh coffee beans every day, with an old-fashioned coffee grinder I had found at the flea market.

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