It's late afternoon here in the dining room at Carmen Delzell' house.
A soft breeze picks up the edge of a pair of old lace curtains and blows them across the enamel kitchen table and suddenly your breath catches in your throat as if something important just happened, as if a bit of the past just drifted by on that curtain-ruffling breeze.
But there are other little keys to the past here: a jewel-like old quilt proudly embroidered with names of people probably long dead hangs on the wall. On the floor a hooked rug with horses and a mysterious date: 1944. An old dusty-brown set of shelves with the words "Magic Food" written down the sides. An arrangment on the wall of old tinted photographs. An armoire filled with old dolls and wooden toys.
And over in the living room even more: a cut-down rough wooden table, a sofa from the '30s covered in deep yellow slipcovers, a vase filled with blue hydrangeas, an old white bookcase with the figures of people cut out along its edges.
Upstairs in her bedroom: a line of cowboy boots, old and beautiful, with patterns like nothing you've ever seen before. An iron bed, a blue primitive cupboard, an old table mirror with "Love Dear" written on each side, a stack of Bakelite bracelets.
Scattered throughout the house are scenes, little vignettes of old things that seem to tell stories. In one corner is a little bit of Mexico, in another something of Italy. In still another room, it's more like Texas -- the place where she grew up -- crossed with the '30s and dusted with the rural South.
"Texas," she says, "has a kind of a rough, hot, pioneer feeling. It did when I was little and it still does when I go back. It's dusty. Rough-hewn boards and cowboy boots."
Everywhere are little totems, folk art, little quirky things handmade by someone who just wanted to make something.
It's as if the past has been torn up into little pieces, then, like a collage, glued back together, maybe making something more beautiful than the past ever really was.
Carmen Delzell sits in a chair covered with a vivid flower print, fabric from the '40s she saved until she found a use for it.
"This whole house is just like my grandmother's," she says, looking back toward the dining room where the curtains still float on the breeze.
"I've probably moved 30 times since I started having houses, but I always try to make my house feel like my grandmother's house. Except my grandmother's house, the things that I loved about it were not necessarily the things that she thought were good. For me it was a lot of dolls, old doll things in the attic and all the funny cookpots and little religious things around."
She pauses and then goes on, "I realize now she had terrible taste, you know? She'd go to Woolworth's and get a strawberry-printed tablecloth and matching napkins and matching kitchen curtains and tie them back with little plastic strawberries."
It's hard to describe the mix of nostalgia, bright colors and individuality in this house. Even though it all seems to have a beautiful cohesion, there is no word for it. Whatever it
is, it's as complex as its owner.
Carmen Delzell is a collector of sorts -- although she hates the term -- a collector of old things, of thoughts, of people's stories and of her own past.
And whether they are old prison art picture frames made out of empty cigarette packages or ideas, they are often things that people at some time and place haven't wanted to look at.
Her diarylike commentaries are heard about once every other week on National Public Radio's program, "All Things Considered," and often they focus on the painful parts of her life and the painful parts of society, on people she meets whose lives sometime seem like open wounds. She does battle with ignorance and prejudice in a very direct and unsubtle way, a way that makes some people squirm.
Her essays and short stories have appeared in the now-defunct magazine Wigwag, and she teaches writing at a local college and in her home to a group of loyal students who were unwilling to let her go when the semester ended.
She lives in this Baltimore house with her son Colin, who is 17. Her daughter Ashley, 22, lives in Washington.
Up until a year ago she had a store called Blue Moon, which she first opened in the Adams Morgan section of Washington and then moved to Baltimore to Fells Point in 1988 after Adams Morgan became chic and rents soared.
Blue Moon was a store that sold primitive antiques and things thrown under the term collectibles -- "things that I found in the trash and found at the dump and in attics and stuff," she says.
"People were constantly trying to define what it was I was doing when I had the store. 'Is this an art deco store or is this folk art, or what is this that you're doing?' And I notice that's the same kind of reaction in my house.
"People really seem to think that this is an accident," she says, looking around. "As if I don't know better or I can't afford better."
She survives by the fact that some people don't see the beauty in the same things that she does.
She points to an antique cupboard. "This actually was given to me by a French family who moved to America and brought it with them. Their grandfather carved it out of chestnut which doesn't even exist anymore. And then it didn't match their new furniture and they were tossing it out and I asked them if I could have it. And it's priceless because it's really true French provincial chestnut."
But she seems to have mixed feelings about the fact that the things she has in her house are currently hot or trendy or valuable. On one hand it means that she can continue to supplement her income as a free-lance writer by buying and selling collectibles at flea markets here and in New York. But it also means that she will have to move on, finding the aesthetic edge that some people love and other people throw away.
"I always try to see, you know, how styles evolve. And I do think that it usually takes the artist's eyes. You can look at any neighborhood, almost anything, clothes, you name it. An anonymous artist usually picks out a thing or would pick out a neighborhood and see that the architecture was neat and that it's cheap to live there. And they'll fix it all up and then suddenly the newspaper or a magazine will see it and then the next thing you know the developers come in and it's suddenly very chic to say that you live in this neighborhood and then the artist has to move on and find another place.
"And it's the same way with stuff. In 1969 I could still buy a Victorian wicker rocking chair for $15, but then at some point it wasn't practical to collect things like that because the magazines were showing them. So then I'd have to collect
something that was not as well publicized."
She gets a little uncomfortable, she says, if her house gets too close to something that comes out of the pages of the latest shelter magazines, even though the magazines, it seems, have just finally caught up with her. "There's a point at which I start feeling like it's looking too 'decoratey.' And then I don't like it.
"To me sometimes the pleasure in a room is like the blue glass jar with the hydrangeas in it. Or just the way the light comes in on the blue birdcage. I never think like oh, that's a priceless vase. Or my valuable this or that.
None of this stuff has real . . . well, it has real value but you can't put a price on any of it. In some ways it's worth nothing, you know, it's just in the eye of the beholder."
She gets up out of the chair and walks over to an arrangement of family pictures and Mexican milagros on the wall.
She peers at a picture in the middle of it all, a picture of some obscure saints with an inscription in Italian. "The miraculous image," she reads, translating. "When I bought it I thought it said, miracle of the imagination. And I just liked the idea -- that the imagination causes miracles."