Stripped of its furniture and accouterments, the house in which I recently spent five days would be unremarkable, a typical home from 20 or 30 years ago.
On the second floor are two bedrooms, a shared bath, and a small attic. On the first floor are a kitchen, a laundry room, a dining room, a living room, two parlors—one might easily serve as a bedroom—a master bedroom with an attached bath, and another bathroom at the end of a hallway. The unfinished basement offers parking for two cars and an abundance of room for storage.
The property on which the house sits is also commonplace, three acres of hillside in the mountains of western North Carolina. In the front, a sloped yard ends at a thin rank of trees. In the back, the same slope of earth runs up to more trees. Maples, oaks, and a few firs on all sides hide this house from neighboring homes and from Henn’s Plant Farm, a nursery just across the pitted dirt road beyond the trees of the front yard.
As I say, an unexceptional piece of property in this region.
Enter Becky and Tom Polonsky, my sister and brother-in-law.
In the four years since they bought this house and property, Becky and Tom have created a place of tranquility, a sanctuary of peace and beauty affording an escape from the bustle of the outside world.
Surrounding the house are beds of flowers—black-eyed Susans, morning glories, daisies, sunflowers, and more. Here, too, is a miniature arboretum of shrubs, ferns, and mosses. Wooden boxes and clay pots hold an abundance of herbs. Vegetable gardens, some in wooden frames, some tucked away near the woods, produce squash, okra, carrots, lettuce, and tomatoes.
Ornaments and small sculptures decorate these gardens. An imitation turtle sits on a rock; an angel kneels beneath a flower basket; a clay pot of herbs tops a piece of weathered statuary. Stones pulled from the yard and woodlands stand artfully stacked on the patio and walkways.
In this canvas of flora, we find mixed elements of English and Japanese gardens, a playful and free-spirited array of various plants, pots, statuary, benches, tables and chairs, yet a feeling, too, that great care and thought have gone into the placement of even the smallest ornament or the most insignificant shrub.
The inside of the house matches the tranquility produced by these gardens. Here again, nothing is out of place—I was housesitting as I wrote these words, and the other rooms offered a silent rebuke to the mess of my books and papers strewn across the bedroom floor.
In every room, we find objects connecting their owners to their past. On a wall in the dining room is a painting of Pennsylvania’s McConnells Mill, captured on canvas by our father 50 years ago. In the same room, a charming hutch with a marble countertop was a wedding gift for Becky and Tom shipped from Germany by Tom’s brother. In the living room near the front door, there hangs a framed embroidery done in 1851 by Hannah Floor, one of our distant ancestors. A painting of Naples by Tom’s mother decorates the wall above the desk on which I wrote these words. And everywhere photographs of grandparents, parents, children, and grandchildren offer loving tribute to the past and present.
Immaculate, uncluttered, with each room artfully arranged for comfort, here is a home that, were it grander or were its owners important figures in the world, would be worthy of an appearance in Southern Living or Architectural Digest.
Which brings me to my point in this celebration of beauty.
When we hear the word “art,” most of us think of painters, sculptors, musicians, and writers, men and women who bring some interior vision to life from a palette, a piece of stone, staff paper, or a blank page. Names from the past leap to mind—Dante, Michelangelo, Rubens, Mozart, Shakespeare, Jane Austen—and we rightly honor those names.
We use “art” in a broader sense as well. Google “the art of” and you’ll find hundreds of books, websites, conferences, and movies that begin with those words. The art of war, the art of manliness, the art of the deal: These only scratch the surface.
Yet among us are creators of a different sort, neighbors, friends, and family members, who win little renown in the exercise of their talents and who in fact often don’t regard themselves as artisans. That woman whose coq au vin explodes on our taste buds, that man who can cut and glue pieces of wood into a beautiful bookcase, that teacher who can breathe life into poetry, that homemaker whose touch and gift for grace ensures that those who walk through her front door will find enchantment: All those who bring beauty into the world bring a unique gift to the rest of us.
The canvases of artists like Caravaggio and Botticelli, the music of composers like Bach and Handel, the poetry of Emily Dickenson and William Wordsworth: These are marvelous achievements mingling beauty and truth, and we bend a knee in homage to them.
But we should also respect, honor, and encourage those who brighten the corner where they are, those who bring charm and grace to the rest of us, with no thought of profit or gain. Our hearts and souls need these gifts.
Becky and Tom Polonsky bring that beauty to their family and friends by way of their gardens, woodlands, and their home’s beautiful interiors.
Like them, we all have the power to create some object of beauty, however great or small.
And when we do so, we make the world a better place.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.