Four years after they bought their 1930s home in Houston's delightfully eclectic West University neighborhood, Mary Beth and John Arcidiacono planned a mega-remodeling to make the house more inviting and informal for them and their four children. The ink had barely dried on the plans when, in the summer of 1998, a car crash turned their world upside down.
The quadruple rollover took the life of their oldest son Johnny, 13, and severely injured the brain of their second son, Christopher, who was then 11. The two younger children, Joey, 9, and Allie, soon to turn 5, suffered only minor injuries. Priorities shifted. Decorating plans, suddenly a pinpoint in the big picture, were abandoned. "We actually had the plans in the car with us," says Mary Beth. "After the contents of the car were returned to us, we threw them in the trash." It was four years before the family was ready to confront the idea of remodeling again.
"Life split into two parts-before and after," explains Mary Beth, a gentle dynamo who has stared down every parent's worst nightmare-actually, two of them-and emerged with a sturdier spine, a larger heart, and a bottomless supply of purpose that has mended not only her own family but others in similar situations.
Dealing with Johnny's death is only part of it. When she was told Christopher would not survive the insult to his brain, she refused to believe; when doctors next said he would live but only in a vegetative state, she refused to believe; when the prognosis then changed to him never being able to walk or talk, she still refused to believe. But when Christopher graduated from high school in 2005, the same year as his peers, then completed his first year at a community college, Mary Beth was at his side-his biggest believer. She has resolve to spare.
She volunteers in grief counseling and brain-injury awareness, and for additional causes she holds close-not a huge surprise, considering her first job out of Southern Methodist University was to help stamp out hunger with Hands Across America and USA for Africa.
Photography: Fran Brennan
In the vibrancy of her home, which radiates warmth and life with its clear, bright hues, heirloom furniture, framed children's artwork, and folk-art family portraits, it's hard to realize the orchestrator of this happy symphony is the same woman who, just eight years earlier, scrambled through broken glass on a two-lane rural road in Colorado searching for her boys. They had been ejected out of their seat belts and thrown from the super-size SUV she had been driving home from their family's annual vacation.
Only after nurturing Christopher back to walking, talking, and attending school was Mary Beth ready to revisit the idea of remodeling-and then, only at the insistence of her kids. She and John planned an expansion to their modest house that would enlarge the kitchen and create a new breakfast room, family room, front porch, enclosed back porch with a fireplace, three bedrooms, and two baths-one outfitted, spa-style, for Christopher's physical therapy. Mary Beth served as general contractor of the entire project, which took nine months. "After what we've been through, nothing can stress us out," she says.
Almost always, the decorating component of any remodeling is icing-pretty and delicious. For Mary Beth, it was healing. "When you bury your child, you don't have to bury his or her memory," she contends. It's a point she makes in her book about putting her family back together again, and it's a recurring theme throughout her home. Johnny's presence, along with her other children, is visible in every room.
Start at the front door, which is an heirloom from John's great-grandmother's Houston home. The tiny butterfly that always dangles from the keyhole is a symbol of Johnny's life and a constant reminder of him. "At the graveside service, we all released butterflies," says Mary Beth. In one subtle form or another, butterflies appear throughout the house, whether stitched into colorful folk art or ornamenting one of the hundreds of crosses in Mary Beth's expansive collection. Shell, bottle-cap, wire, painted, and clay crosses, to name a few, span both sides of the downstairs hallway.
In the breakfast room, colorful artwork by all four children generates energy and a healing power. "It makes me happy," Mary Beth says simply. The room's personalization is underscored by a clawfoot oak table, inherited from Mary Beth's side of the family, which she updated with a cool zinc top and gun-metal paint. To set off the family pieces, the walls are painted an unusual shade of green with a lot more kick than cool-more jalapeño than cucumber. "Mary Beth loves strong color, whereas I'm a taupe, gray, and white person by nature," says interior designer Eleanor Cummings, a family friend who had planned to work on the house even before the accident.
The two women began by discussing the dining-room palette, which Mary Beth wanted red-orange. "We painted the walls that color. Then we introduced green on the linen-covered Italian chairs inherited from John's grandmother," says Cummings. For the adjoining living room, they reversed the order-green on the walls, new orange fabric on a pair of antique French chairs, an ottoman, and a matching settee.
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."