When her husband, Ashton B. Carter, the former defense secretary under President Barack Obama, died of a heart attack at home last October, Stephanie Carter was left with many questions about the future.
But one thing she knew right away: She no longer wanted to live in the three-bedroom rental in Boston where it happened.
“I knew immediately I did not want to be in that apartment,” Ms. Carter, 54, said. Days after losing Mr. Carter, she contacted her building’s leasing office about finding a smaller apartment.
“I think people underestimate — or, at least, I did before this — how much grief, loss and trauma inhabit your physical space,” she said. “We don’t think about how our physical surroundings can really be so integral to how we’re feeling.”
Planning to radically downsize, she rented an 822-square-foot one-bedroom in the same building for $5,700 a month, with the notion of moving in at the beginning of December. That left her with about four weeks to design her new apartment and figure out what to do with a lifetime’s worth of belongings.
For help, Ms. Carter called on two professionals she had worked with in the past: Barbara Vail, the interior designer who had designed the couple’s three-bedroom apartment, and Rachel Rosenthal, an organizer who had helped the Carters with previous moves and planned their wedding.
For her new home, Ms. Carter didn’t want to cherry-pick a few pieces of furniture from her old home — she wanted an entirely new environment. She made plans to sell or give away most of her furniture and accessories to friends and neighbors, and provided Ms. Vail with some basic direction.
“I told her I wanted to live in a Nancy Meyers movie,” Ms. Carter said, naming the filmmaker behind movies like “Something’s Gotta Give” and “It’s Complicated,” which had sets that inspired many real-life imitators.
Ms. Vail was up for the challenge. “The main goals were to make it healing, comfortable, cozy and inviting,” she said. “It was going to be a different aesthetic than her old apartment, which was a little more modern. It was going to have a warm, textural, patterned feel to it.”
And she didn’t flinch at the tight time frame. While buying new furniture frequently requires waiting many weeks or months for delivery, Ms. Vail focused on using only in-stock and vintage items.
The living room, for instance, is anchored by a green velvet sofa from Joss & Main and a marble-and-brass coffee table from Anthropologie, which Ms. Vail placed on a vintage Turkish rug, along with a pillowy ottoman from Target.
In the bedroom, she used removable floral wallpaper from Chasing Paper. “We did that to be renter-friendly, but still create an eclectic, custom look,” Ms. Vail said. Then she added a bed from Maiden Home and rattan night stands from Ballard Designs, topped by sculptural lamps with block-printed, pleated fabric shades.
At the same time, Ms. Rosenthal was helping Ms. Carter clear out her old home while preserving important mementos of her time with Mr. Carter.
“I’m a big believer that physical clutter creates emotional clutter,” Ms. Rosenthal said, so she helped Ms. Carter donate everyday things that held little meaning — her husband’s clothing and office supplies, for example — keeping only the pieces that really mattered.
Although Ms. Carter’s new home offers a fresh start, it is filled with things that evoke memories of Mr. Carter: photos of the couple together, framed handwritten notes and other objects. In the living room, Ms. Carter mounted one of his favorite neckties in a shadowbox. She did the same with an old tennis racket he dutifully brought on every vacation but rarely used.
“I like to think that we were always having so much fun on vacation that he didn’t think he needed to add in a sport,” Ms. Carter said.
She framed a handwritten note saying “Kwispies for NYC plz” — Mr. Carter’s way of asking her to make brown-butter Rice Krispies treats for a trip — as well as an elaborate equation reflecting his work as a physicist.
She added a few new pieces, including Herend ceramic figurines of a lion and a squirrel. “I called Ash ‘Lion’ and he called me ‘Squirrelly,’” she explained. “All these things make me feel like he’s with me in a great way, not in a preserved-in-amber way.”
Now Ms. Carter is writing a book about dealing with loss, which she described as “a handbook that looks at how you put one foot in front of the other in practical ways, with your body, your mind, your spaces.”
The focus, she added, is on “day-to-day, action-oriented ways you can move forward.”
Her new home is one such example. “It has been so calming, and I really feel happy,” she said. “It does make a difference to me to wake up here.”
Living Small is a biweekly column exploring what it takes to lead a simpler, more sustainable or more compact life.
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