When Ginger first contacted me about participating in a Living With Kids tour, she mentioned her love of books. Little did I know, her interview would read like an old favorite. I found myself getting lost in her description of her boys, carried away by her comments about her home and how she ultimately fell in love with it, and the way she writes about being a mother…Oh, it’s all pretty wonderful! She told me to feel free to edit her thoughts, but I just couldn’t do it. So please, grab something to drink, find a cozy spot, and curl up with this tour! This is Ginger Johnson.
Q: Please tell us all about the family who lives here!
A: I’m Ginger. I spend my days writing books for children and young adults, and my nights masquerading as Omnimom the Enforcer, ensuring that homework and chores are done, piano and cello are practiced, lunches for the next day are prepared, showers are taken, projects are worked on (A whale on stilts costume with laser eyes? Really? A dodo bird carved out of Styrofoam? Sigh), and most importantly, ensuring that everyone knows that I love them. I occasionally check in as Pantry Girl, particularly during canning season.
I’m joined by the Gingerbread Man, my adored and incomparable husband of 18 years, and our two children who are as opposite to each other as two children who came from the same womb can be. The oldest gingerbread boy is 12, and is a human GPS system. He is a dedicated pianist, bridge player, reader, and tree climber. He loves eggs, but hates chicken. The youngest gingerbread boy is eight and likes to create things whether it be fairy houses, duct-tape mugs, origami cups, waffles, or chicken coops. He loves chicken, but hates eggs. Together, we live at the Gingerbread House. Sadly, the Gingerbread House lacks architectural gingerbread, but we make up for that in spice.
Q: How did this house become yours?
A: My husband was finishing up his Ph.D in Michigan, and had accepted a job in New Hampshire. We had one weekend without our boys in which to find a house. After dropping them off with my in-laws in New York state, we zoomed out here and spent two days looking at 18 houses. This was the last house we saw. It was in biking distance to my husband’s work, a half-mile to the elementary school, and it met all our needs.
This house, while not my dream home (as it lacks turrets and hidden staircases) was real and possible, and it seemed like a solid place for us to build our life here in New Hampshire.
Q: What makes you love the place you live?
A: I didn’t love it when we moved here. Sure, I was carried away by the fireplace and the screened-in porch, but I grew up in a city – busy, diesel-filled, populated – and we are not in a city. We are in a forest. Within 48 hours of being here, we were at the emergency room because an enormous tick had implanted itself on my baby’s head and we couldn’t get it out. Then, while talking to a neighbor, I learned that a black bear had loped across her front lawn. When the moving truck came, we discovered the upstairs toilet had been leaking for months, and there was mold growing in one of the kitchen cupboards.
I thought, What is this place? I felt very isolated here, a stranger in a strange wooded land, half an hour’s drive from anywhere. I remember going for a walk by myself one evening (clinking my keys loudly so as to scare off any bears who might be lingering around), having a bit of a pity party when I had a sudden thought. If God were to descend from His heaven at that very minute, He would say to me, “Dear girl, this is the best I have to offer. You would trade this for closer proximity to Home Depot?”
That put it in perspective for me. I began to look around me and appreciate where I am, and the delicate intricacies of nature. I live in the forest, not in a suburban sprawl. I’m woken by the sound of chickadees, woodpeckers, and wood thrush instead of a neighbor’s car alarm. The hooting of a barred owl sings me to sleep. There are rafters of wild turkeys and patches of wild blueberries. There are stone walls galore. You can’t hike through the town forest without coming upon at least one. And yeah, we have a town forest.
In spring, the greenness takes my breath away. The trillium and lady’s slippers growing in the forest are a surprising gift each year. And the moss! I could wax poetic about moss, but I’ll refrain. There are even choruses of peeper frogs hanging out at the vernal pools.
In summer, the trees are cool and shady. There’s nothing like a summer thunderstorm in the forest to make you feel alive and to ponder existence as you watch 100-foot tall trees swaying like blades of grass.
In winter, it’s Narnia here. The snow is divine. The hush after a nor’easter is practically holy. And autumn? I don’t need to say anything about the changing leaves. I live in a glorious place. I live in a fairy tale.
As for our house and property, we have over an acre of land, most of it wooded. There are trails, a stream, a spring-fed pond with an ancient goldfish, a tree house, a soon-to-be-chicken coop, and a plethora of flowers and flowering bushes and trees.
And did I mention there are no sales or income tax here? Live free or die, baby.
Q: Is decorating your home to look beautiful important to you? Or is it more about decorating to live well, no matter how it may look?
A: You would think after all that rhapsodizing about nature that I would simply be content to put a mat on the floor and call it a day.
The fact is I seek inspiration from my surroundings, whether nature-made or man-made. I like beautiful things. Even more than that, I like useful things. Beauty and living well are not mutually exclusive. If something is both beautiful and useful, hip hip hooray! Sign me up!
Q: How have your boys affected your aesthetic? How have you changed in terms of style and expectations since adding kids to your home?
A: Most of my aesthetic pre-dated the arrival of my boys. I came to my adult life with a few really great possessions that have shaped my style: the turtleback trunk, the child’s roll-top desk (it has a secret compartment!), and a hand-stitched velvet crazy quilt. In addition to that, I had a love of color, and a big imagination. So I wouldn’t say that my style has changed as much as it has evolved, layer upon layer, with layers representing who I was before and who we, as a family, are now, with space left for who we will become.
Just as I found my own aesthetic, my gingerbread boys will need to find theirs. Currently, their aesthetic mostly involves Legos. However, I have recently recognized their need for softness and comfort. While shopping for rugs, both of the boys made a beeline for the one that was incredibly soft. Life can be hard, even for a third- or a sixth-grader, and there’s nothing quite like a soft rug under your feet, a comfortable chair, or a flannel blanket to wrap up in.
Q: What is your favorite room in which to spend time in your home? What makes it special?
A: It’s hard to choose a favorite. Currently when I’m not in my office or in the kitchen, I’m usually found in the living room. The sofa is incredibly comfortable, and the pillows are soft. The boys are usually at the piano or cello, and the room is infused with light. It’s a happy place.
In fall or winter, I’m more likely to be found in the kitchen and family room with the fire roaring.
Q: Do you consciously decorate or arrange a room with your kids in mind?
A: Aside from an incident involving an air-born trombone mute and the living room wall, my boys have not been a destructive duo, and I have not needed to decorate or arrange a room to childproof it, other than for safety reasons. When they were little, we had baskets of toys in the living room, their bedrooms, and the play area. Somehow, they either learned on their own what was and what was not a toy, or else I hovered over them until they were old enough to know better. Mostly though, I think I provided them with things that were far more interesting to play with than, say, Mommy’s books.
Now that they are getting older, I want our home to be inviting to both them and their friends. So we have a tree house. We have places to make blanket forts. We have a stocked pantry, and a mom who’s willing to make chocolate-chip banana muffins as needed. We have a floor plan that allows them to run in a circle, as well as space for quality time, which in our family is another name for wrestle-mania.
Their bedrooms are all theirs. Other than providing them with the basics of furniture and linens, and the occasional license plate, I have kept my decorating whims to myself. Their rooms are off-limits, and I respect that.
Q: Do you consciously decorate or arrange a room with your boys in mind?
A: Aside from an incident involving an air-born trombone mute and the living room wall, my boys have not been a destructive duo, and I have not needed to undecorate or arrange a room to childproof it, other than for safety reasons. I don’t think I consciously decorate with them in mind, but they have a way of infusing all that I do.
Now that they are getting older, I want our home to be inviting to both them and their friends. So we have a tree house. We have places to make blanket forts. We have a stocked pantry, and a mom who’s willing to make chocolate-chip banana muffins as needed. We have a floor plan that allows them to run in a circle. We have space for quality time, which in our family is another name for wrestle-mania.
Q: What do you hope the things you keep in your home are teaching your kids about your family? What do you hope they’ll remember most from this home?
A: Tim O’Brien wrote a short story called “The Things They Carried” in which he lists the possessions carried by a group of soldiers in the Vietnam War. You can really tell a person’s priorities when you look objectively at what they’re willing to pack through the Vietnam jungle.
When I look at the things we “carry” in our home, it’s mostly books. My mother was a children’s librarian, so I grew up in libraries; my favorite gifts as a child were autographed copies of books. I can’t help but pass that on to my children. We value stories, both true and fictional, and consequently, we have books all over our home.
We also “carry” photos of family members from many different generations. I want my boys to know that they are not alone in this world, but that they come from a great line of hardworking, intelligent, strong people, and that those attributes are bound up in their very DNA. I want them to strive to be great, like their forebears were.
We “carry” antique maps of places we have lived and places that are important to us. These maps tie us to locations, and center us in our world. You can never be lost if you know where you’re from.
When our boys grow up and create homes of their own, I hope they’ll carry with them these connections to past and present. In addition, I hope they’ll carry memories of playing chess together in front of the fire. I hope they’ll remember climbing trees in summer. I hope they’ll remember dancing in the kitchen with their goofy parents. I hope they’ll remember the smell of biscuits baking, the sounds of the birds at the feeder, or the wonder of watching their seeds grow into a garden.
More than likely, they’ll remember the gigantic tree frog we found inside the fireplace doors, and watching the Muppets Bohemian Rhapsody on YouTube. Kids are like that.
Q: What has been your favorite part about living with your own kids? What surprised you the most about being a mother? What do you already miss?
A: My boys surprise me on a daily basis with what they do and who they are becoming. For example, I love watching the joy on my oldest son’s face when he has conquered a difficult piano piece. I love hearing his plans to befriend a new student in his class. I love hearing his excitement about an upcoming event.
Just a few weeks ago, the youngest gingerbread boy got up early on a Saturday, made waffles and herbal tea, and brought me breakfast in bed. Just because. Then he made breakfast in bed for everyone else. The affection and selflessness he has is inspiring. These things are hallmarks of who these boys will become, and it’s gratifying on a daily basis to see them grow into themselves.
My children have forced me to dig deep into who I am and what I value and to draw upon patience that I do not naturally have, and become creative in ways I had not contemplated before (who knew a brand new box of tissues makes for the best entertainment on a 5-hour road trip for an 18-month old?), and be selfless in a way I could not have fathomed before having kids. Just as I would be a different person if I had not married my husband, I would be a vastly different person if I were not mother to these two boys.
I know that I have a limited number of years with my boys before they fly the coop, so I try not to dwell on the ticking clock. But I do miss the way their bodies curled up when they were infants. I miss their graham cracker dusted hands and their chubby milk cheeks when they were toddlers. I miss their kindergarten confidence.
Some day I know I’ll miss hearing the piano as they practice – something else will have to determine the soundtrack of my life. I know I’ll miss making them breakfast in the morning. Right now, one leaves before the other, so I get time alone with each of them every morning to talk about what’s happening that day. I’ll miss that. I’ll miss their enthusiasm. I’ll miss their fist-bumps. But right now, I still have these things, so I enjoy what I’ve got.
Q: Please finish the sentence: I wish someone had told me…
A: I wish someone had told me to leave my expectations at the door, to shed them once those pregnancy test results came back positive, because expectations have a way of ambushing you when you least expect it. Children come with their own personalities and gifts and challenges; you don’t get to choose characteristics from the grab-bag of life, and it’s better that way, isn’t it?
I wish someone had told me to be gentle with myself, every day. Motherhood is hard, and if your children have any sort of challenges, it’s even harder. I wish someone had reminded me that I am the best mother for these particular boys, hand-picked to be their nurturer, advocate, and teacher, and that as much as they need me, I need them. Those words would have been more welcome advice than the oft-quoted and guilt-producing “time-passeth-quickly-savor-the-moment” speech.
Yes, it’s important to savor the moment; it’s true that the years pass quickly, but savoring the moment only gives you snippets of life. It’s even more important to have a wide-angle perspective, and savor the sum total of these moments. We all have good moments and bad moments, good days and bad days. When we look at the grand mosaic of these moments taken together, we can see the artistry and the beauty of the life that we have.
The way their bodies curl up when they’re infants. Graham cracker dusted hands and chubby milk cheeks. Kindergarten confidence. All those words just melt me, and I have a feeling I’ll be reading them a few more times. Thank you so much for them, Ginger!
Friends, have you ever found yourself in a home that wasn’t exactly the stuff of your dreams? How did you fall in love with it? I’d love to hear your stories!