Home is where the heart is, or as the case may be, where the collection of severed animal heads is. The animal heads in our particular collection were killed and taxidermied by strangers, then purchased by my uncle at garage sales.
While I could see how there's a certain level of pride in displaying something you had the patience, marksmanship and general disregard for life to kill, hanging other people's carcass trophies in your own home was just beyond me. Then again, most of our home decor was beyond me.
At the age of 7, I moved in with my aunt and uncle. At first, their house — a split-level on six acres in rural Nowheresville, Ohio — was a bit of a novelty to me. They had a jukebox in the living room, a commercial-grade milkshake machine in the kitchen and a detached garage-turned-bar equipped with pinball machines, a foosball table and a mini bowling lane.
Every cooking gadget imaginable could be found in the kitchen, even though my aunt and uncle had exactly three recipes in their repertoire: spaghetti, pot roast and upside-down pineapple cake. Despite their limited culinary catalog, our pantry was stocked with an obscene amount of unhealthy and unnecessary provisions, purchased in bulk from Sam's Club. Why would anyone need a 6-gallon container of ketchup, or 16 jars of mayo? If man could live on condiments alone, we'd be the lone survivors of the apocalypse.
To a kid, the house was a treasure trove of oddities and entertainment, an eclectic mix of knickknacks and secondhand furniture. There were boxes of records in the basement and old dresses stuffed in all the closets. The aforementioned collection of taxidermied animals included deer wearing cowboy hats, stuffed squirrels on trees, an antelope and a rooster. It wasn't until I got a little older that it became less charming and more embarrassing. At an age when all that mattered was fitting in, I was mortified by anything that made me stand out.
As I spent more time at friends' houses, I started to realize how different their homes were by comparison. Their living rooms had matching furniture in stylish '90s hues of hunter green and burgundy, while ours boasted a refinished '50s gas pump and an antique barber chair with a skeleton in it. (The skeleton was wearing a tuxedo, so at least he was a fancy skeleton.) My friends all had bedrooms with pale pink walls and enviable floral wallpaper borders. Our house had been haphazardly painted by a guy named Bob the Painter — picture Matthew McConaughey's character in Dazed and Confused, minus the Matthew McConaughey — whom we paid in beer. While my friends' kitchens were stocked with matching wares, we ate off mismatched plates and drank from Mason jars long before these kinds of accoutrements became hipster staples.
If the curiosities and oddities were strictly limited to inside the house, that could've easily been hidden. Much to my chagrin, my family's idiosyncrasies spilled across all six acres, the front yard serving as the home's crowning glory. While most homeowners take pride in manicured lawns and carefully tended gardens, my aunt and uncle saw the front yard as a blank canvas upon which to showcase their most impressive collection of "art." Centering the display was a flagpole, which boasted a 1776 commemorative American flag; there was a soothing water feature (read: old blue bath tub) and fountain (read: broken birdbath).
In the front, near the street, my uncle created two display boxes squared off by wooden beams, filled with gravel and roped off, as though they were exhibits on loan from the Smithsonian. The left display rotated frequently, its most common inhabitants being a horse-drawn Amish wagon and a massive piece of antique farming equipment painted fire-engine red. The other display remained unchanged. In it stood the pièce de résistance: a boat — nay, half of a boat — positioned to look as though it was sinking into the ground.
In the booming metropolis of Columbia Township (population: 6,912), our house was an illustrious landmark. You couldn't mention our road without someone piping up to ask, "Where do you live in relation to the house with the sinking boat in the yard?" That's the one, pal. As fate would have it, I was the second-to-last kid to be picked up on the morning bus route, meaning I stood dutifully, day after day, at the end of the driveway, looking like a shipwreck survivor awaiting rescue. I gladly welcomed harsh single-digit temperatures, because winter meant dark mornings, where the house and lawn behind me could've very well been normal and boring. They weren't, but it was nice to pretend once in a while.
I was the queen of grinning and bearing it during my awkward and self-conscious pre-teen and teen years, and although I was 10 years into marriage before I'd allow a rogue coffee mug to mingle amongst the matching dinnerware in my own cabinets, somewhere along the way, I learned to appreciate the absurdity that I grew up amid. My childhood friends, for all their fine Laura Ashley furnishings, never once had unlimited jukebox credits at their slumber parties, or a mounted fish that sang Bobby McFerrin on command. And that boat? It actually provided pretty good cover for shooting berries at passing cars with a slingshot.
These days, when I stare out at my manicured, boring lawn, I kind of miss the shipwreck. Maybe I'll create a landmark of my own here in Nashville. My aunt and uncle seem to have predicted the popularity of Mason jars and taxidermied animal heads. Surely, half-sunken ships as lawn ornaments are the next big thing, if you can manage to find one.