February ABODE: Providing boundaries between public and private family space

There is an epically fabulous mirror in 13-year-old Nan Marsh’s room. This particular antique was found in the basement of the 100-year-old house that she shares with her parents, Charles and Karen, and occasionally with her brothers, Will and Henry (who are both in college). The baroque frame has been touched up with highlights of turquoise paint and bedecked with pink twinkle lights—perfectly unique. Along with posters of Taylor Swift, a collection of young adult novels, and the requisite smattering of teen-girl accessories, this space is clearly and personally Nan’s. “Sometimes you just need that one space that’s all yours and you can feel comfortable in,” she said, knowingly.

Creating boundaries between public and private space has been an ongoing challenge for the Marsh family. “We live here as a family,” Karen explained. “But it’s also the center of [our work]. It’s really a shared space.” Over a decade ago, Charles and Karen set out to pursue a dream of creating “a gathering place for students, professors, and others in the community to engage in conversation about integrating the practices of theology into everyday life” (as literature from their not-for-profit Theological Horizons has it).

Additionally, Charles, a UVA professor of religious studies and author (among other things), works from a home office.

The Marsh home, which they have named the Bonhoeffer House after the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is essentially divided between uses by floor. The attic holds Karen’s office with space for an intern or two. The second floor is the family’s domain, housing the bedrooms, private bathrooms, and TV/computer room. The first floor is where guests share meals, conversation, and other community events.

“There is a lot of overlap,” Karen said, even with an über-organized, color-coded Google calendar. “Like, when [Charles] is trying to study and work and I’m having a group in here, then he’s got to go find another space.”

When asked how she feels when she returns from school to find visitors in her home, Nan said, “I’m pretty used to it… I usually just go to the kitchen and into my room.”
But sometimes even the kitchen can become uncomfortably full.

“I’m not a fan when we have caterers here because they’re usually kind of grumpy in the kitchen,” said Will. “That’s probably the only down-side; they kind of take over my kitchen.”
Despite the house being open to company much of the time, the Marshes manage to make it clearly their home. Furnished with cozy rugs and fantastic yard sale and thrift store finds, it has a palpable sense of familial warmth. “Everything is patterns,” said Karen about the choice of rugs in the public spaces. “So, that helps a lot because people do spill all the time.”

Quick changes and simple tidying solutions are key to smooth transitions from family space to public space. For example, belongings that need to be taken to the second floor are gathered and placed at the bottom of the hidden kitchen stairs until one of the residents can shuttle the stuff where it belongs. Sandy, the dog, won’t stop sleeping on the couch, so a slightly hairy blanket covers the upholstery and is folded and stashed when company arrives. Stray dishes are piled in the kitchen until they can be taken care of and snacks are brought out so the mess is hidden from view.

Karen advised, “Put your energy into keeping that public space ready for whatever… It’s O.K. to let your kids be in their own space and make their own way in it.”—Christy Baker

A clean getaway
Some family accessories are easy to clear out of the public space. Others can present more of a challenge.

“Even today,” recalled Karen Marsh, “there’s a puzzle on the dining room table. So I was thinking, O.K., I’m having a lunch on Monday for, like, 40 people. What do you do with the puzzle if the puzzle’s not done? So, I went out and got some foam board and I covered it with felt and I made a puzzle board. Now, when I have to move the puzzle, I will move the puzzle.”

If you’re not feeling crafty, pick up a puzzle/game roll-up mat from Cville’s Hobbies, Games And Toys, $19.99-25.99.—C.B

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