Refreshing the fabrics wasn't always a priority for Mary Beth, who is about as laid-back as a high-energy person can get. "Look," she says, pulling out a photo of the kids sprawled on the living room's French settee when it was still upholstered in tattered silk over horsehair. "We lived like that for years and never noticed. We didn't mind." Here is further proof of their easygoing attitude: "For 10 years, until we inherited the dining table from John's family, we didn't have one. But for the kids, it was great. They really enjoyed going in there and playing."
Once the decorating began, Mary Beth was a full participant. "With so many colors in our palette, we called our process adding and subtracting," recalls Cummings. "By the time we got to the master bedroom, we both agreed it was time to tone everything down with whites and khakis."
Even downstairs, as a segue between the formal and informal sides of the house, Cummings knew it was important to make the center hallway neutral. "We plucked khaki out of one of the living room fabrics and painted the walls that color. That gave us the freedom to do whatever we wanted on the opposite side of the house," the designer explains.
At the entry in between formal and informal living areas, an antique metal demilune presented an opportunity for healing in the form of storytelling. "Every piece of furniture in the house has a story," says Mary Beth, and this one happens to be about Johnny. "We had been driving in the car when I spotted a pair of demilunes on the sidewalk in front of an antiques shop," she recalls. "I did a big U-turn and sent Johnny in to negotiate. Then I sent him back with the checkbook," she laughs. They drove away that day with both demilunes loaded up in the back of the car.
Just to the left of the entry's demilune table is the new family room. This sprawling space of sink-down seating takes color cues from Mary Beth's collection of antique amethyst-to-deep-purple medicine bottles-finds from pilgrimages with friends to the Round Top Antiques Fair, a premier antique flea market located midway between Houston and Austin.
"Many of my best finds are from there," confesses Mary Beth, pointing behind one sofa to yet another Round Top treasure-a centuries-old Spanish table whose age can be smelled (pleasingly) as well as seen, and whose handmade square nails are each singularly primitive works of art. In this room, Round Top treasures rub shoulders with family heirlooms. Illuminating the Spanish table are a pair of antique lamps (experts argue whether Italian or Greek) passed down through John's family. Near the purple bottle collection is the heart-of-pine mantel salvaged from John's ancestral home. And all across the bookshelves are family photographs-many of all four children.
The decorating helps healing by keeping memories alive. "We have pictures of all of our kids along the stairs," says Mary Beth, "and Allie's friend wanted to know who they were. Allie said, 'These are my brothers.' Her friend argued, 'You had three brothers, but now you only have two.' 'No,' Allie said, 'I will always have three brothers.' If I can give that to my kids-the ability to remember-it will help them get through life."