Photos by Lyndsay Hannah
I’ve met writer Catherine Newman in person just once — or wait, maybe never? — but I feel like we’ve been friends forever. I imagine everyone who reads her work feels that way. She writes in a funny, tenderhearted voice, as if you’re in the same room, laughing on the sofa, lukewarm coffees in hand. Today, I’m thrilled to share a tour of Catherine’s Amherst, Massachusetts, home, which she shares with her husband, Michael. (Their grown kids — Birdy and Ben — also regularly visit for “a blissful week or two.”) Take a peek inside…
On congregating: Everyone enters the house through the kitchen door. We always wanted to build a mudroom, but every time we got close, I would say, ‘Wait, do we need a mudroom more than Partners in Health needs $5000 from us?’ There was something about spending this actual significant amount of money that made me pause. Still, the door area is chaotic. When I saw this poster at a friend’s house, it made me think, Oh right, this mess is a value instead of a liability. The poster gives me such a good feeling.
On a reliable meal: Birdy is a vegetarian with celiac disease, and Ben is a carnivore who will make an exception for bread. They’re both incredibly gracious, but their favorite foods don’t overlap at all. So, our family meal is now ‘Bean Feast.’ I make a big pot of pinto beans in the pressure cooker, and then put out toppings for people to choose from. I’ll cut lime wedges and shred cabbage or make a simple cole slaw; there’s hot sauce, flaky salt, feta, diced avocados if we have them, olive oil. It’s such a good meal, honestly.
On a vase collection: I’m really good at culling a bouquet of flowers indefinitely [laughs]. You can give me a bouquet, and months later I’ll be picking out the one living thing and putting it in the world’s smallest vase. I know carnations are a beleaguered flower, but you start to realize, everything dies out and carnations live on in perpetuity.
On an interior window: When we bought the house, I wanted to knock down this wall. The living room is teeny, and I thought if it connected with the kitchen it would be better. But we didn’t have any money for renovations. So, our friend Johnny came over with a Sawzall and cut out this window. It changed the whole vibe of the downstairs, and it was such a nice housewarming gift. It also means you can shout to each other, which is all anyone in my house ever does.
On the pear gallery wall: I like eating pears, I guess, but I love the way they look. As soon as I hung the first pear artwork, it was like a magnet. People sent me pear photos and postcards and drawings. The collection was this organic thing. But I’m particular at this point — I won’t indiscriminately hang a pear!
On a kitchen couch: During our house hunt, our real estate agent hated us because we were so weird and had particular ideas and a very small budget and it didn’t translate into anything ‘normal’ — like, we didn’t need an ensuite bedroom but we needed room for a kitchen couch. But we love this couch. I’m often cooking, and it’s where everyone hangs out all the time.
On a coffee-table drawing: When the kids were tiny, we covered the coffee table with white paper. It was fun for them to draw on the table, and their friends would come over and draw, too. It became a 20-year habit. Now, at Thanksgiving, someone will doodle a perfect thing or a portrait, and I’m like, okay, I’m cutting that out and keeping it! We score games on it, I take notes during phone calls, I figure out recipes on it. When the kids were teenagers, I would come down in the morning after a big sleepover, and there would be all these tiny dirty drawings on the table or bad words, which was the funniest and most innocent rebellion.
On a piano: Our son Ben plays the piano. He plays a lot of Joni Mitchell for me because he’s a mensch. He plays Christmas music for my mom when she visits for the holidays, and when our friend in his 90s comes for dinner, Ben will play Frank Sinatra.
On board games: We play so many games and are very picky about them, and we play epic European games that are intense and stressful. One of our favorites is a wine-themed one called Viticulture. We sit down to play, and everyone has to say, I have nothing going on for the next four hours, because we’ll look up and four hours will have passed and we’ll be hunched over increasing our vineyard land. There’s never a dull moment and you feel like you’re dying the whole time. You’re like, omg I’m going to miss the harvest, forget it, I might as well leave now!!!
On bathroom supplies: Our daughter Birdy is a total rockstar activist, and she made a box with a sign that says, ‘Help yourself to pads and tampons!’ She always says she wants to live her life in the kind of house where it wouldn’t matter if you bled on the couch. We have a houseful of teenagers all the time, and kids will spill stuff and say, ‘Omg I’m so sorry!’ But we truly don’t care, and I’m very happy about that. That’s Birdy’s value.
On a shared office: I usually work in bed or at the kitchen table, so the truth is, the office is a lovely place where I dump everything. Michael has a desk in here, though. He’s a massage therapist. He got a Ph.D. in philosophy from Berkeley but realized that he didn’t like it enough to devote his life to it or move around in the ways academics have to. So, he went to massage school. He does his billing in here.
On a writing ritual: I write a lot because I have deadlines and that’s how we pay our bills, but I’m not the most disciplined writer — so, I made myself a sticker chart. Now, every time I write 500 words, I get a sticker! I also need a big caffeine buzz — I wrote my new novel in a fugue state. I get up early, massively caffeinate myself, write as much as I can, and give myself multiple stickers.
On a bigger bed: If I had my parenting to do over, I would get a king bed. Because we still all lie in here and watch TikToks on the kids’ phones and it’s like a joke from an old movie. I don’t even know if the bed is comfortable or not. I think it’s fine. Our bedroom has a very haven feeling to me, all in all.
On a headlamp: Oh my god, I have the worst insomnia, but I get a ton of reading done. After my husband falls asleep, I wear my headlamp; it gives the exact amount of light for reading. The only thing is, the cats feel like I shine it in their eyes and they’re mad about it.
On hosting guests: My favorite guests are the people who are excited, and I always try to remember that when I’m a guest. I love when I say, ‘Would you like wine or beer at dinner?’ and they’re like, ‘Ooh can we have both? Can we start with wine and then have beer?’ I appreciate people who are into being hosted and enjoy all the special stuff. ‘Do you guys eat ice cream?’ ‘WE LOVE ICE CREAM!!!!!!’
On a crowd-pleasing book: This is the book everyone wants to read, I think, when staying at someone else’s house. It’s entertaining, and you can leaf through it. I recommend this to everyone as a hosting thing to put out.
On not being embarrassed: One thing that I keep thinking about is how weird I got about my house when I knew it was going to be photographed. I tried to keep it real, but then I kept thinking — omg, the photographer will pull back this curtain, and there’s going to be a bucket of dirty washcloths and all the acne medication. It’s so weird what makes you feel shame. Even though nothing was different from what anyone else would have. Oh, god forbid someone see my acne medication!
On a great part of social media: I love how TikTok videos will show people talking about mental illness and the fallibility of the human body, how a million things happen and they happen to everyone — and there’s total acceptance. TikTok can be this loving, surprisingly wonderful place. And almost everything is really funny. You couldn’t have a weird thing and not find someone making a TikTok about it, and I’m like, Omg that’s good, that’s so good.
On enjoying an empty nest: Of course, I miss my kids and I wish it were normal for them to stay home for the rest of their lives and live full, happy lives like that. But there are silver linings to being an empty nester. I realized that, unbenownst to myself, I had approached motherhood as hosting this really good, multi-decade party. When the kids were both gone, I felt the relief of that. Now, with Michael, at the end of the day, we’re just hanging out. He’ll be like, want to get a pizza? Want to have fruit for dinner? And I don’t care! I really don’t care. That part is a surprising pleasure to me, the easiness and sweetness of being home alone with someone I’ve been with for so long. It’s just Michael and me, and the cats.
Thank you so much, Catherine! We love you to pieces.
(Photos by Lyndsay Hannah for Cup of Jo.)