The Art of Looking Killer

A Yankee transplant gets a Southern decorating lesson

By Caroline Hamilton Langerman

There are a lot of stigmas about people from New York City, but my most glaring deficiency, when I quit the city to be near family in North Carolina, was in the homemaking department.

I was ignorant of fire hazards such as lint filters and coffee makers. I couldn’t name a flower, differentiate wood furniture from plastic, or cook a frozen pizza without calling my mom to panic about little embers of burning cheese. My last encounter with paint had been in a high school ceramics class. Or was that glaze? Plants were something I visited in other boroughs.

So, picture me arriving with my husband and small son to my dream house in the heart of Myers Park, Charlotte. “Dream” is an accurate descriptor here because the content is blurry: I like the house, but I’m not totally sure why. It’s both charming and imperfect, but I can’t itemize its charms or quirks. Built in the 1920s and set atop a little hill on a tree-lined street, the house looks “cottage-like” to me.

“The little white Tudor?” asks my cousin who lives in the neighborhood.

“Exactly!” I exclaim, pretending to have understood the history of its friendly gables, shingled roof, and half-timber framing.

Week one in the South feels like a prison break: I drink coffee on the blue slate front porch, eat peanut butter crackers in the backyard surrounded by limelight hydrangeas, and push my stroller down the driveway humming “Dixie-Land Delight.” It thrills me — and bothers my husband — that friends call the house “cute.”

There is only one problem. It’s empty.

“I have a friend, McKenzie, who is just starting out decorating,” the Realtor says. “She doesn’t yet charge by the hour.” By the hour? How long could it take to suggest furnishings for a cottage?

If there were a Venn diagram of my decorating appetite, I am smack in the bulls-eye between desperate and indifferent. I gaze upon a reasonably attractive glass coffee table I’d procured on consignment and decide not to call McKenzie. Five minutes later, my eyes fall on the musty drapes, and I dial her 704 number like it’s 911.

McKenzie is a buttercup. She shows up dressed in shades of pink that in New York I had only encountered on the tulips in Central Park. Her blonde hair shines; my being brunette suddenly feels like a bad decorating choice.

“Come in,” I say, opening the door of my adorable house to reveal its naked interior. Inviting her in gives me a flashback to letting my husband see me without makeup for the first time. As she accepts a glass of tap water and sits on my used-to-be-white sofa, I reassure myself with the fact that he did marry me, beady eyes and all.

McKenzie lays an arm on the old sofa sleeve, puts her water down on my mom’s (handsome or horrible?) antique end table, and politely asks, “So, Caroline, what’s your style?”

When I don’t answer immediately, she prods gently: Am I traditional, or contemporary? Do I like patterns or solids? What color schemes am I envisioning?

I look back cheerfully, as if fibbing on an important exam, and offer this safe non-sequitur: “I admire Kate Middleton,” followed by some rambling about wanting to “fit in Charlotte” but “not be trendy.”

Luckily, McKenzie has vision.

“Let’s start to bring the outside in, Caroline, with some chartreuse throw pillows.”

Over the course of a few weeks, she adds a skirt to my mother’s old parlor sofa. She brings in a pinewood console to temper my husband’s 55-inch TV. She all but bullies me into recovering a pair of wingback chairs in a bold blue stripe. “In my opinion, Caroline,” (she says my name in an accent that makes me feel like a bona fide Steel Magnolia) “these will look killer.”

Little by little, this old house gets new life. I feel my newfound enthusiasm for decor rise through the shingled roof. Along with it, my budget. My husband, an investor who regularly uses Excel to build complicated financial models, is Ping-Ponging a spreadsheet of expenses back and forth with me via email. He teaches me a two-fingered shortcut to “insert row” — an action I take every time McKenzie suggests something that a Southern Lady should have.

Around this time, my mother starts noting that it “must be nice.” “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” she says, padding through the kitchen and wrapping up some leftovers.

My millennial-shame stings for about two seconds. Then I remind myself that during the decade when I could have been chipping reasonably away at Rome, I had been living in windowless basements or fifth-floor walk-ups, sleeping in bedrooms that fit only my twin bed. I may be playing Scarlett O’Hara in my new house, but haven’t I at least kind of earned it?

Still. My blessings — a Southernism that I swore I’d never adapt — are many. I hold the baby to his nursery window and show him the North Carolina state tree blooming in the front yard. “You’re so lucky,” I tell him with a squeeze. “A pink dogwood!”

He looks back at me cheerfully and says, “Woof!”

In spring’s fullest bloom, neighbors drop off biscuits and offer their teenagers as babysitters. Cats come stalking around our grill at twilight and rub our bare legs (shorts in April!). Our road has a family Easter egg hunt. Two ladies in tennis skirts ring the doorbell one morning to introduce themselves as co-captains of a Neighborhood Watch Patrol. One of them is “still rather loopy” from a varicose vein removal procedure that morning. Southern hospitality is alive and well.

“So, have you met many new friends?” shouts my best friend over the din of Manhattan traffic.

“Oh, yes. Everyone’s so nice!” I begin to describe McKenzie and her pinafore-wearing toddler who plays with mine. But halfway through telling the inside joke McKenzie and I have about the double meaning of “green stools,” I pause, remembering her invoice on my kitchen counter. I know I’m paying her, but we’re friends now, aren’t we?

One month before my housewarming party, McKenzie shows up with sheer curtain samples for the kitchen, and some big news.

“I’m moving,” she says.

“Oh, great!” I start to anticipate which of Charlotte’s popular neighborhoods will be her new home.

“To Germany,” she apologizes. I have to catch my breath. Apparently, her husband has taken a promotion there. She will of course give me the numbers for her handyman and seamstress so I can call them directly.

“That’s wonderful,” I say, so disappointed I could crumble. It’s not just that I will have to navigate interior decorating alone. It’s that no one will ring my doorbell each Tuesday with a big smile, a bag full of fabric swatches, and advice on how to get accepted to the best church preschool.

Nevertheless, there’s a debut to plan. McKenzie goes into overdrive: Curtains are hung, art is installed, and carpets are rolled out.

“Go to Campbell’s Nursery,” she commands, “and buy yourself a white orchid plant in the $60 range. Put it in a cream-colored pot in your living room.” I drive directly to the nursery, then continue to Harris Teeter in search of sweet tea that isn’t too sweet for my grandmother.

The next morning, there is a huge bouquet of blue hydrangeas on my front porch. “A batch from my backyard!” the text from McKenzie reads. “Have a fabulous time!”

I look at the vase — clear glass with little glass polka dots — and smile. I imagine McKenzie’s sink water bubbling into the vase, her scissors snipping down the tallest stems, her minivan — off the clock — delivering them to my door. Around here, if you’re wondering if someone’s your friend? They are.

A few weeks after the party, I email her. “You were right. The wingbacks are killer.”

Caroline Hamilton Langerman has published in The New York Times, Elle, Town & Country, Southern Living and more. She hails from an old Concord family.

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