Just a few email-chats with Melissa Andersen is enough to make you feel like you’re best pals. Her way of making you feel at ease and welcome is a sentiment that also extends to her comfortable and inviting 1725 Dutch Colonial farmhouse in Cedar Grove, NJ.
Boasting a history of nearly 300 years, her home is all about memories — both of the families that have lived under the same roof and climbed the same stairs, as well as her own. Born into a large Italian family, get-togethers centered around the kitchen are a regular occurrence at the Andersen’s. As a self-employed writer, editor, and social media specialist living in the countryside suburbs, Melissa’s days can sometimes feel lonely and, admittedly, doubt has a way of creeping in. But having her husband, pets and extended family all gathered around the large dining table or clamoring around the kitchen island is all the comfort she needs.
Like many of us, she’s trekked through her fair share of struggles with finding her footing as an adult, and today, Melissa is opening up to share her thoughts on everything from embracing the constant process that is life, to the flour on her Nona’s wood bread board, to taking advantage of fear, and — last but not least — pizza. —Sabrina
Photography by David Ayllon
Tell us about yourself.
Hi! I’m Melissa Andersen and I’m a freelance writer, blogger, editor, and social media specialist in the home/interiors and handmade niches. I live in a circa 1725 historic home in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, with my filmmaker/film professor husband, a rescue dog, and two rescue cats (there’s a lot of fur flying around my house, but I wouldn’t have it any other way). We recently moved in after living in Jersey City for many years and it’s been a big adjustment. Going from a walkable city to the suburbs wasn’t always the plan — I actually wanted to move to the country — but when I saw this house I fell head-over-heels. I love that I’m surrounded by nature and wildlife, and that after years in small apartments, I finally have a human-sized space to decorate and make my own. The fact that this home existed before we were even a country, and that nearly 300 years of families have lived under this same roof, climbed the same stairs, walked the same floors — it all blows my mind. There’s so much history here, so many stories, and I feel honored to be the next in a long line of caretakers of this piece of Americana. I’m savoring the process of learning the history of my little Dutch Colonial farmhouse and slowly making it mine.
As far as my career, I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to do something with my love for the written word, but it wasn’t until much later in life that I realized I could combine it with my passion for interiors. My path took me to many different places before I ended [up] where I am now, and although I sometimes wish I had put my puzzle together sooner, I’m so grateful for all of the opportunities I’ve had. It’s crazy how so many seemingly unrelated skills or experiences have come into play now that I’m working for myself.
I’m also a living kidney donor, which is a big part of who I am. I donated to a stranger and my donation kicked off a chain that ultimately saved three lives. It’s certainly not the right decision for everyone, but for me personally, it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. It’s given me a whole new appreciation for health and wellness, and has taught me to live life how I want to, when I want to, because nothing is guaranteed.
What does home and this space mean to you? Describe it.
Home has always been important to me. It’s where I feel safe, comfortable in my own skin, cared for, loved, where I go to recharge my batteries, and the only place where I can truly be me. I’m intensely private and protective of my space, because I feel like it’s the most visible representation and extension of myself. To me, the most beautiful spaces are the ones that make you feel right at home from the moment you walk in, and I think that’s achieved through the slow and thoughtful collection of objects, art, and furnishings that are not only aesthetically pleasing, but also tell a story. My favorite homes blend the new with the old, and feel collected over time. I also believe that every room needs something that was crafted by human hands — that fingerprint of the artist or maker is what gives a space a heartbeat, a sense of being alive. I’m very particular about what finds a place in my home, which is why it takes me so long to feel like my house is “ready” to show to people — in my eyes, it’s never really done.
Coming from a big, tight-knit Italian family, the kitchen in particular has always been the most important space in my home. It’s all about gathering and sharing love and nourishing mind and body. It’s where we come together for big family meals, to celebrate life’s milestones, and to grieve over our losses. Just about a week after I moved into this house, my grandmother passed away suddenly. She was the matriarch of our family, and the absence she’s left behind is profound. My grandma was an incredible cook and baker, and when she passed, I was able to save a few of the things that reminded me of her the most — nearly all of them are from her kitchen and now live in mine. Her old bread board — where she used to make doughs for cookies and pizza — now lives on my kitchen island. When I brought it home, it still had some caked-on flour that I couldn’t bring myself to wash off. One of her handmade aprons that she often wore now hangs on the sweet Dutch door that leads from my kitchen to the back mud room. But of the many of things of hers that I have scattered throughout my home, my most prized are the handwritten recipe cards I now keep in a box on my kitchen counter. I feel such a strong connection to her every time I touch them, and I can’t wait to make those recipes with my kids and grandkids just like she did with me and my cousins.
What makes it so comfortable?
I don’t think most people would think of a kitchen as the most physically comfortable space in their home, but I do. My house is not very large, and the kitchen/dining area is one of the biggest rooms in the home. It has just enough space to move around, prepare food comfortably, and hang out with friends and family while still being intimate enough to feel cozy. I absolutely love the exposed beams in this space. You can still see the axe marks from where they were hand hewn nearly 300 years ago! Looking at those gives me such a deep appreciation for old structures and the intense manual labor and attention to detail that went into building them.
Another feature I love is the huge fireplace and the surrounding built-ins. Although it’s not currently in working condition, the fireplace still has its original swing-out cooking arm and a large brass pot that has been with the house since it was built (and I’ve been warned by previous owners that it stays with the house forever!). I often imagine the large family meals that must have been cooked over that fire and I love that I can continue feeding family in this space, albeit in a very different way. Hanging above the fireplace is a blown-up image of the first known photograph of the home — a beautiful reminder of all this home has seen over its lifetime.
The large, deep windows are another favorite feature of my kitchen, and perhaps the most physically comfortable one. The walls are made with 21-inch thick stone (insulated with horse hair!), which creates these really deep windowsills that are perfect for napping pets, storm-watching, and daydreaming. More often than not, if I’m on the phone, I’m perched right in one of these windows.
At the risk of sounding cliché, they don’t make them like they used to!
What makes you uncomfortable? What is your biggest fear?
Being in front of a camera is a big one, as is sharing my home before I feel that it’s ready, so needless to say, doing this interview definitely required a lot of self pep-talking. Because home is so important to me, and also because I work in the interiors world with a mom who is an interior designer, I think people expect a lot from me when it comes to my own home. And since we only moved in a few months ago, my house is definitely nowhere near “done” — whatever that means. Learning to embrace the process and not wait until everything is perfect before showing others has been hard for me, but I’m working on it every day (hi Design*Sponge readers!).
Another big fear of mine is giving up. Not failing, but choosing to walk away from something that I know is right for me. As someone who is self-employed, running my own one-woman show, there’s always that nagging voice that I’m not doing enough, accomplished or “successful” enough, busy enough. Especially with the Internet and social media, it’s easy to get caught up in comparing my life to the perfectly curated and staged lives of my peers. Even though I know that’s not reality, I find myself constantly questioning if I’m good enough to do what I do, if I really deserve to live this life that I love. My deepest, darkest fear is that one day I’ll let that little voice get the best of me and end up walking away from a really great thing just because it doesn’t look like someone else’s picture of success. It’s a constant battle with myself, mostly, but I like to think that every day that I wake up and chase my version of happiness is another step closer to winning the war.
Have you ever thrown caution to the wind and departed from your comfort zone? What happened as a result?
Absolutely — that’s when all the best things happen! I’m not a fearful person, but I definitely feel fear — sometimes intensely, almost cripplingly so. But I’ve learned to use fear to my advantage, to feel it fully, dissect it rationally, and then act on it.
The best example of this was when I quit my perfect-on-paper job over three years ago and set out on my own, with nothing more than a vague idea of what I wanted to do and the potential of one client. I was working in the tech world at this point, with brilliant, incredibly successful people who had already made huge names for themselves. The money and benefits were good, my future path was clearly laid out, and I was making invaluable connections. But I never felt like I was part of that world. The lingo and attitude didn’t come naturally to me, I wasn’t using my creativity in the ways that I wanted to (or much at all for that matter), and the cutthroat nature [of] my job was taking its toll on me, mentally and physically. The anxiety became unbearable — I came home either crying or too tired to feel anything at all, and I woke up dreading another day in the office.
Eventually it hit me that I was simply making a living, not creating a life. I was miserable, and for what? I decided right then and there that this was not how my life was going to be. The next day I quit. I wasn’t 100% certain about what would happen next, but for the first time ever, that was okay. I felt free. And then I went home and hustled my butt off and never looked back. I never in a million years thought I would work for myself, in an industry that I eat, sleep, and breathe, doing what I do best. Plus, I get to work from home which has been life-changing. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s been worth it a million times over. It’s also made me redefine success. Yes, money is important, but it’s not my sole source of happiness. Happiness to me is loving what I do, even when I’m having a rough day. It’s being able to take an extra long walk with my dog in the middle of a beautiful afternoon. Happiness is making my own hours, my own schedule, my own terms, and deciding with whom I do and do not work. It’s making a career that also leaves room for making a life, however I envision it.
What would you do if you had a day, a week and a month all to yourself?
If I had a day completely to myself, I’d definitely start it with something outdoors — a hike, a swim if the weather was warm, or even just a stroll through a local park. The rest of the day would be filled with driving through the New Jersey countryside or Upstate New York searching for antique shops, boutiques, and other hidden gems. Then I’d cap it all off with a delicious dinner and maybe a movie on the couch.
A week to myself would be spent traveling somewhere to learn a new skill, whether it’s something physical like scuba diving or creative like woodworking. I have a little dream of being a Jill-of-all-trades, and I would love to spend this week working towards that.
A month would absolutely be spent traveling. I’ve been to Europe a few times now, but with every country I visit, my list of places I want to see gets longer. The travel bug is real! I’d love to pick one place and just linger — get to know what it’s like to really be a part of that local culture and experience the beauty of just existing there.
What have you learned as an adult that you wish you knew when you were younger?
It’s so important to find your tribe. I have so many incredible lifelong friendships and met so many wonderful people at college, but in addition to those relationships, I wish I had spent more time finding people who were the same kind of weird as I am. As you get older, it’s harder to find your people, to connect with the ease in which you did as a kid or a teenager or even young adult. And while I am slowly building more of those friendships, I definitely will encourage my kids to branch out as much as possible while they’re young.
Also, talk to your elders! When you’re young, you never think about what it means to age, and so you don’t really value the wisdom and knowledge of those who have. Your grandparents are treasure troves of insight, information, and advice — they’ve lived through wars and economic depression, they’ve loved and lost, failed and succeeded, laughed and learned. They know how to do things with their hands instead of technology! Ask them questions, listen to them closely, and cherish them. They might be gone before you get to hear their answers.
How do you unplug, recharge and unwind?
Unplugging is hard for me, especially since part of what I do for a living is social media, which never turns off. But I quickly learned that unless I do, things get ugly, fast. So for me, unplugging means physically stepping away from all technology — reading a great book, making something by hand, getting outside and doing something physical, or enjoying a great meal. Ideally, recharging involves doing something that makes me feel small, yet powerful, like hiking a mountain and taking in the breathtaking views from the top.
Have you ever experienced burnout? How do you get back on your feet and stay inspired?
Regularly! Thankfully, though, I experience it a lot less now than I did when I first started freelancing. Working for yourself is a constant hustle, and the expression “time is money” takes on a whole new meaning. It’s hard to turn off, especially when you’re doing well. But no matter how many times I think I’m superhuman and won’t burn out, I do. The key is not getting too down on myself and realizing that I have my limits and they need to be respected. I’ve learned that when I feel like I’m on the brink of burning out, I can’t push through it. I have to accept it, step away from whatever I have going on, and give myself the time to recover. During these times I give myself permission to take a short mental vacation — a few days where I avoid tackling anything too intense. And usually that little break is exactly the thing that inspires me to get back at it and do it better than before.
What do you think the world could use less of, and more of?
Less quantity, more quality — in everything.
What’s one question you wish you had the answer to?
In the end, what will have mattered the most, and what will not have mattered at all? (Also, if you are what you eat, how come I’m not pizza?)