Observations
Four Walls and the Truth
How do we define our possessions, and what do they say about us?

IMAGE: Kirsten Ulve

In the fall of 1998, Lyle Lovett released a double album of cover songs written by fellow Texas musicians. The title track, Guy Clark’s Step Inside This House, was one of my favorites, and I played it on repeat. In the song, Clark’s narrator leads a woman—a love interest, presumably—through his house, pointing out treasures and giving brief but poignant explanations of how he acquired each one.

I listened to the song so many times that autumn that I had the man’s house memorized, and even though I’d heard the tune a hundred times, I felt the same sting each time Lovett sang about the painting a down-on-his-luck friend had given the homeowner. “It doesn’t look like much, I guess / But it’s all that’s left of him” still gets me.

Back then, I had just graduated from journalism school at Texas A&M University—Lovett’s alma mater—and I had no idea where my career would take me. As it turns out, many years later, I would become an editor for one shelter magazine, then another, then a freelance writer focusing on interior design and architecture.

Maybe all those spins of Step Inside This House were job training because, somehow, I now make a living listening as people tell me stories about the treasures in their homes. While it’s true that no homeowner has given me a quote as forthcoming as the one Clark wrote about a book of poems a young woman gave our dear narrator—“It’s funny how I love that book / And I never loved that girl”—the stories I hear often stick with me.

From artworks purchased on trips to far-flung locales to heirloom furnishings passed down through generations, the items that populate people’s homes are windows into their personalities, values and histories. They’re so personal and intimate that I’m honestly surprised every time someone opens the door to me (a stranger with a tape recorder) and proceeds to release the secrets of his or her belongings.

As die-hard Aggies like to say, “From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it.” That’s true of Texas A&M culture, but it’s also true of houses. On the outside, they’re a mystery, but once inside those four walls, little—and sometimes big—truths are revealed.

The minimalists among us may argue that material things are a distraction and will never lead to happiness, but I’m not sure about that. When a homeowner on Long Island told me about the 12-foot-long cabinet she dragged out of a barn in pieces, painstakingly refinished and placed in her kitchen, her voice filled with pride. From that short aside, I could tell that the cabinet, once a fixture in a local ice cream parlor, never failed to spark joy.

And when a homeowner in Dallas showed me a series of black-and-white photos she had framed and displayed prominently in her family room, it was clear she cherished each and every one. The images depicted work her grand-father had done for NASA, where he was employed as an engineer. When he retired, NASA gave him the photos, and they were handed down to his granddaughter.

Looking around my house, I realize it’s the stacks of books that reveal the most about me. Most of my shelves teem with bulky volumes on architecture and interior design—they’re tools of the trade, sure, but they’re also glimpses into how other people live. On other shelves in the house, you can trace my reading preferences from elementary school.

Over the years, there was a memoir phase, a true crime phase and a thriller phase. There was also a Stephen King phase that started around 1988 and hasn’t ended yet. Some books I keep around for sentimental reasons, such as my 1958 set of Collier’s The Junior Classics. The 10-volume collection belonged to my mother when she was a girl, and she passed it on to me. With titles such as Fairy Tales and Fables, Myths and Legends, and Stories of Wonder and Magic, the rainbow- colored hardcovers enthralled this small-town kid whose books were windows to worlds far beyond the city limits of Liv- ingston, Texas. From my most tattered paperback to my heaviest coffee-table tome—and especially that set of children’s stories—these books are among my most prized possessions.

When I scan the shelves, I think of Lovett’s voice and Clark’s words: “I’ll show you all the things that I own / My treasures, you might say / It couldn’t be more than 10 dollars’ worth / That brighten up my day.”


Writer Rhonda Reinhart covers interior design and architecture.

TAGS: Observations


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