Tuesday, November 30, 2010
When Home Falls Apart... an interview with Author Isabel Gillies
When Isabel Gillies gave up an acting career in New York to move her family to Oberlin, Ohio she felt her life was close to perfect. Her husband had a teaching job at the University and they could give their two little boys a more carefree childhood in the country.
When they bought an 1877 redbrick house, built by a mason, Isabel felt all her dreams had been realised. The perfect house for the perfect family. As she notes in her book, ‘I’ll never be able to write about how great it was.’ Only it was not meant to be. Within months of moving in, her husband announced he was leaving Isabel and the boys; her perfect home metaphorically falling down around her.
Last year, Isabel published a memoir Happens Every Day chronicling this crisis time of her life. Beautifully and intimately written, it reads as a conversation between friends and is extremely difficult to put down. Told without anger but with insight, understanding and compassion, Isabel’s story is compelling and will leave readers wanting to know more... thankfully, her next book is due to be published in August 2011.
Home has always been important to Isabel, even when she was young, ‘When I got married and really had to make a nest for little ones, I don't think the idea or feelings about the home changed very much, it's just that before I felt like I was playing house and then suddenly it was the real deal.’
In Ohio, her redbrick house became an emblem for a perfect family that Isabel soon discovered no longer existed. Did such a devastating experience change those feelings about what ‘home’ really is for her?
‘I never in my life thought I would live in a house like that. I had grown up in apartments, and this house felt so REAL. I felt I had to treat it like a respected elder in the community. It sort of felt like mine, but really I felt it belonged more to American history. I respected it more than I lived in it. I think I would have grown to feel like it was mine, but I didn't live in it for very long.’
‘There were bats in the attic of that house, and 100 year old glass windows. It was a trip. I felt that had my kids grown up in that house, it would have sunk into their bones - all that history. I thought they would be able to feel that house wherever they were in the world.’
Renovating it into their ‘dream house’, Isabel could imagine her family growing old here together. As she wrote in her book, ‘Everything was planned out for our big family life for the next 20 years. Anyone who walked in the doors could feel that.’
When she became concerned about her husband’s feelings for a colleague who was also a friend of Isabel’s, she felt their home would communicate the stability of their family, ‘I wanted everything to look as calm and pretty as possible. I also wanted her to really get the picture of just how lovely the life going on inside this brick house was.’
She writes in the book that when she realised the marriage was falling apart, she still believed the house would save them, ‘The room started spinning, but my eyes found the side of the counter. Josiah and I had spent hours deciding what shape the curve of the counter should have. There are many different grooves you can choose or you can have it quite plain. We chose to have one groove in the middle of the curve. Elegant and simple. I held onto the counter and felt the groove under my hand, reminding me that we had built this house. We had chosen colours and fixtures and a life.’
But it was not enough. As Isabel tells me later, ‘It was an important place because as much as I loved to have it, it also taught me that home is a lot more than a house.’
‘When I think of that house now, it seems sad to me... Maybe you never can feel anything but pensive about the place where a family you loved ended, or rather, changed.’
‘When I think of the frumpy, funny faculty house we rented before we bought the brick house, I feel happy.’ Despite being ‘worn from years of professors and their families making their lives for a bit of time in it’, Isabel felt very strongly about this home, ‘It was a bird’s nest that just stays in the tree for years while different birds use it to raise their young. It was warm, generous, and smelled of must and wood.’
Leaving Ohio meant moving back into her parents’ apartment in Manhatten, the home Isabel had grown up in. ‘All my feelings about home and what I had built and what had gone away and what was ahead of me, had been put in a powerful blender and I didn't know which way was up.’
‘However, all the good feelings about a home are inside you and are impervious to the blender. They travel with you no matter what is going on in your life. So, in many ways, my feelings about home in my twenties and when I was in Ohio, and then when I was back in New York and even now, are very much the same.’
Now remarried, Isabel, her husband and her sons still live in Manhatten in an Upper West Side apartment. ‘Again, even though our home is probably the most grown up home I have ever made myself (I am 40 after all), I still feel like I could be in the apartment I lived in when I was 23.’
The relationship she has with ‘home’ is no different today; ‘I love the time at the end of the day when I know the kids will be home soon from school and then my husband will follow soon after from work. I wander around and plump the pillows, neaten the mail table, turn on lights in the bedroom and start to heat up whatever is on the stove so it smells good when they walk in.
Home, for Isabel, is still and will always be about creating a safe, happy nest for her family; ‘I hope that maybe if I do all that stuff, it will go into their insides and they will take a homey feeling with them wherever they are, whoever they are with, and for the rest of their lives.’
For more information about Isabel, visit her website here.
For more information about her memoir, Happens Every Day, click here.