Musings + Essays

An Asterism.

By: Jen Shoop

*Photo above by Tori Alexander and not of my childhood home, but similar/evocative.

In high school, my girlfriends referred to my childhood home as Nurmily, a clever abridgment of my maiden name (Nurmi — inherited from my Finnish grandfather) and the setting of one of the required summer reading books for high school English, Manderley in Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca. It was a great stone thing that sat on a hill overlooking Rock Creek Park. There was a steep hill for sledding down the back, a round drive at the top, and an enormous apple blossom tree over the garage that snowed petals in late spring. The house was built in the Tudor style in the ’20s and had that agreeable though unshakeable chill of an old house with old bones. There was a marble checkerboard floor in the small dining area off the kitchen that shocked like ice underfoot in the winter, unless the horrifying, hissy boiler immediately beneath it was on, in which case, we liked to lay there coloring and reading, or spread our snow-mottled garments across it, availing ourselves of its wont to dry and warm our mittens before new adventures outside. My original room was the best in the house: it ran the entire width of the left side of the house, a long bracket at the end of a hallway of doors. Its windows looked out over the circular drive and crescent of grass to its right, and I bore witness to all the comings and goings of my parents and their friends, and my brother throwing the baseball with my Dad, and my sister furtively attempting to bury a doll in the backyard. I read my way through The Bobbsey Twins, The Boxcar Children, and Nancy Drew in the window of that bedroom. I first wrote flowery poetry on its floor. My father gifted me his ancient typewriter — the kind that sat immovable in its own suitcase and clacked and chimed and occasionally printed two a’s, one slightly askew on top the other, if you were not careful — and I’d tap away at it in performance of writerliness on the carpet. When I was maybe eight, my parents had a contractor install two enormous built-in desks, with custom bookshelving and cabinetry, one at each end of the room, for my sister, who had at some point joined me there, and I. When it was complete, I’d sit there and draft stories and draw pictures and stare out the window at the prickly leaves of the live oak to my left and the thick hedges separating us from Tilden Street and, in the far distance, the very tip of the Washington Monument.

At least I think I could see the Monument from the window.

But then, that time was all imagination. I was a brushpot of ideas. When my sister could not sleep, I would tell long yarns we came to call “The Daniel and Tyler Stories.” Many of them involved travel to the moon, trips to the Kennedy Center, and sojourns at Rehoboth Beach — that is, the narrow isthmus of forms of space walk then at my imaginative disposal. I had several recurring, horrific nightmares in that room that have in no small part shaped my anxieties later in life, and was absolutely terrified of the floodlights immediately outside the middle window of my room, which I had once cast as Maleficent’s horns out of the corner of my eye and was forever after unable to unsee. At some point in my youth, Steven Spielberg’s production company approached my parents with the possibility of scouting the house for use in a future film. Fiercely private, my parents declined, but the notion that my house could have been a haunted one, or the backdrop of adventure, or the safehaven from it, charged me. The halls, the ancient tiles surrounding the fireplace in the sunroom, the rose trellis around back became shapeshifters, shimmering with new valence. Around the age of ten, my best friend and I would sit in the bushes overlooking Tilden Street recording every strange movement and passerby in marbled notebooks, inspired by Harriet the Spy. If you know the area, you will understand immediately the tedium of this task: there is very little foot traffic on the downslope of Tilden Street, and very little to remark on in general. Still, we’d speculate on the occasional wheezing runner or accelerating car, and once turned those observations into a screenplay we tapped out on the typewriter in painstaking duplicate.

When my parents sold Nurmily when I was in my early 20s, one of my younger sisters was apoplectic. I was despondent, too, but then had the distance and distraction of college, and besides: the house was, since my childhood, less a physical space than an inviting canvas. Imaginings and memories and conjurings colocate there, still. Sometimes I think of it and imagine the people that lived there before us, back in the 1920s. There was a spectacular stone patio out back on which one must imagine many champagne glasses were clinked against the swoosh of well-draped dresses. Sometimes I think instead of the narrowest, almost piercingly specific moments: losing my first tooth on the step in front of the back door, my face flushed with June heat, my mother standing just behind the four panes of window in the kitchen door. Sometimes I remember the wide spray of hours spent with my siblings there, how tight-knit we were, how scarcely we separated from our own pack, and it is a blur of running through grass, playing Indiana Jones in the dank basement, huddling behind my brother as he played Larry Byrd Vs. Michael Jordan on the pixelated screen of our first family computer, popsicles and bikes and Barbie dolls and swings and my Dad pulling into the drive to a chorus of four little girls in bare feet clamoring for his attention — that is, thousands of individual moments that somehow float together asynchronously in the ether of childhood memory. But the house, the house! It was a springboard, and an inkblot, and a repository, and it has been hard for me to define it in any exacting way except to say that maybe it, too, ought to earn some gratitude for playing such a formative role in my creative life.

I was driving down Connecticut Avenue the other day, right past the turnoff for Tilden Street, and I felt almost overcome by emotion. Not sad, exactly, and not happy, either — just bowled over by a thousand simultaneous memories strumming at my heartstrings. As if that corridor down to my first home is full of personal ghosts benevolent and not, imagined and real. Almost without pause, the words materialized on the tip of my tongue: “Last night, I dreamt of Nurmily.” And it felt as though I had completed some revolution from the wild imaginings born of that house when I was a child through the canon of reading I have completed since straight into the constructions and elidings I have forged in my own hand in recent years. It felt to me like a page break, an asterism: Nurmily now more diffuse yet radiant than ever.



+There is an interesting and humorous essay on the dinkus, the asterism, the fleuron, and more in the Paris Review in case you want a primer in these typographical symbols.

+Perhaps Nurmily is why I loved Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House so much.

+Another recent reflection borne of my childhood home.

+My mom’s peony pushes there also visit with me often.

+Another childhood brush with creativity.

+D.C. and the parochial wild.

Shopping Break.

+Pretty SEA-inspired dress for around $100 in a great olive green color. (Available in more sizes here; and more spring green finds here.)

+Or you can spring for the SEA O.G. in white eyelet.

+Loving this boxy rugby shirt — imagine with Agolde jean shorts and espadrilles.

+I know it’s hard to order winter coats on the precipice of spring, but I found a small cache of Patagonia on sale for little ones — this is the only way to get a discount! Consider this snowsuit for an infant, this Retro-X fleece for your little lady, and this reversible vest for your little boy.

+I just ordered myself this “day gown” — adding it to my list of dresses to live in this spring/summer!

+How adorable are these boat-printed shorts for a little one?

+I’ve mentioned this a hundred times, but this mister continues to bring joy and ease into my life. I use it on my daughter’s hair in the morning to make her look presentable for school. Also great if you let your hair air-dry a little too long and need to re-moisten before using hot tools like my Revlon 1-Step.

+Hunting for these shoes in my size! (A few more sizes here.). These are tres popular.

+Beauty products I can’t quit.

+We have a few of these fabric bins from Pehr in the children’s rooms — they’re great for small, specific collections of things, like mini’s Maileg mice, Hill’s dinosaurs, etc.

+Love the new hot pink Ellie from Hill House!

+For my brides: this is a big yes.

+Cute tennis skirt for under $25.

+Speaking of H&M, I did end up ordering this top.

+Children’s rooms finds.

+Ordered these for micro in the sage green color. Green is going to be that boy’s color this season!

+Another Madewell slam dunk. They are nailing it this season! More picks here.

+This white mini makes me think of blue water and white sand and sipping cocktails on a honeymoon. Please pack in your trousseau if you’re recently married — but would be equally gorgeous for any one layered over a swimsuit.

+I have to say, I am intrigued by the fisherman sandal trend. I saw it on Jenny Walton and thought she looked incredible. These ones are pretty.

+In love with this patchwork-esque Hunter Bell dress.

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12 thoughts on “An Asterism.

  1. Wow, I *love* that you and your friends coined the name “Nurmily.” It seems lucky to me that you had readerly peers — I was always the sole book-lover in my group; the bookish one. Honestly, even in my twenties, when my entire circle was made up of English doctoral candidates, I can’t think of someone quipping like that. (Graduate students are too cerebral!)

  2. Hypothetical question! If the home was for sale (and in your budget), would you purchase it?

    I am always fascinated and interested by friends who purchase their childhood homes – either directly from their parents or, even more interestingly, purchase it back from someone who’d purchased it from their parents, etc.

    I lived in 7 (!) homes in the same city from birth ‘til college, so, unfortunately, I never had an experience like yours. Though I wish I had!

    1. Hi! This is so interesting — I don’t think I would? Purely from a practical standpoint: it was an old house requiring a lot of maintenance and upkeep and I don’t think I am interested in that at this life stage. I also feel that maybe it would be weird? Encroachful in some way? Ah! I don’t know, not for me I don’t think. I have heard of this happening though!


  3. I think about this all the time from the point of view of my children. Their childhood home will be this one (or maybe we will move before they really come into their memories? Time will tell!) I wonder what little nooks and crannies of this house will stick with them, make them think of “home.”

    1. So interesting to think on that. I wonder if Emory will remember any of the physical spaces we lived in Manhattan? I do love that their childhood home will be (barring, God willing, any unforeseen chaos) the home we currently live in outside DC. It just feels like a good, solid childhood home with stairs to run down on Christmas morning, a covered porch to lounge on in rain or shine, quirky eaves in the playroom on the top floor. So much of it seems to be ripe for childhood memory-making…


  4. Hi Jen!

    The mood of this post completely reminded me of a recent book I just tore through — Karen Joy Fowler’s Booth. It’s a fictionalization of the Booth family (as in, John Wilkes and his siblings) and it completely captures that childhood feeling of when your siblings and your home are your whole life and imagination. I’d totally recommend it to you!

    1. Ooh thanks, girl! I hadn’t heard anything about this book. Sounds amazing. Adding to my list!


  5. Your writing is so fascinating and inspiring. I see precisely everything you write. In addition, I also find words that I immediately want to find the definition of it since it is new to me.
    I am curious if I am missing the definition of “plaid” in your writing above ( he plaid Larry Byrd Vs. Michael Jordan)? I would use the word “played”, but I am not a beautiful writer like you are, so I would love to know how you define it and its use in the sentence. Thank you for your daily musing and shopping edits. Your beauty edits are ones I follow, buy and use myself.

    1. Hi Courtney — Thank you so much for the incredibly kind words. I am so flattered — thank you. And thank you for your readership! Alas, you caught a typo — you are right, it should have been “played,” not “plaid.” Thanks for catching that! xx

  6. Ah, Rebecca. One of my favorite books. The sheer DRAMA of it all!!

    My childhood home appears in my dreams quite frequently- I’d say 50% of my dreams somehow involve me going back there. My parents sold the house when I was in college and moved full-time to what had previously been our summer residence. I wasn’t that upset at the time because the summer home was really my true home, in a way- my great-grandmother had built it and it had been handed down to my father. But the fact that I find myself back there so often in my dreams indicates that it had a bigger impact on me than I had realized.

    1. Truly! DuMaurier is a fantastic suspense-writer. True Gothic novelist!

      So interesting about revisiting your childhood home. I wonder if this is a common condition of all (or many) childhood homes: they are the primary canvas against so much of our childhood growth/imagination/testing of boundaries/drama that it can’t help but figure into our adult psyche.


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