Blogger Olaniyi “Ola” Swarn sat watching This is Us in her home near Chicago, IL, the same area her grandmother had moved to in the 1950s in hopes of starting a new life far from the racism of the South. The episode was titled “A Father’s Advice,” and Ola was immediately reminded of some of the final moments she’d shared with the matriarch of her family some nine years prior:
“My grandmother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and during her later years we would spend nights at each other’s homes,” Ola says. “While staying in one of the guest rooms of her home I noticed a small dresser filled with letters in chronological order. When I saw that these were letters from my great grandfather there was no way I was putting them back in that drawer without reading them! I sat there in the wee hours of the morning, and I read them. Every. Last. One.”
What she uncovered in the collection painted a portrait of a woman much more complex than the “modest and practical” grandmother Ola had grown up with. In one particular set of notes she wrote about her move to Chicago and the challenges she faced as an African American woman pursuing a nursing career in the 50s. Her stories made it clear that the transition out of state as well as bouncing between her roles as mother and student were proving difficult. “My grandmother was tired and wanted to return home,” Ola explains. “Her father‘s response was a very firm ‘no’.” His note read:
“You will stay with that man and your chi’ren. Finish your scoolin’. I am your father, listen to me… I sold 2 kows. Take the money. Buy scool clos and shoos for the chi’ren. I am your father now, do what I say.
With all my heart, Daddy”
Just like the This is Us episode playing out on Ola’s TV screen, here was a dad imparting thoughtful, albeit pointed wisdom to his daughter.
Soon after the episode aired, Ola felt the itch to revamp her home. At first she was at a loss for a concept, but then she recalled the show’s storyline and how it paralleled her own family’s journey. Celebrating the great struggles as well as the great successes of the Swarns became the north star of her design.
With an idea locked in, Ola and her husband began what would become a five-week-long project aimed at giving their living room, dining room and entry a new look. Thirty-five days sounds like a lot of time, but it really isn’t when you’re pretty much starting from scratch. They sanded and stained the floors, installed wallpaper, recovered their dining chairs, refinished their table and worked in new accessories.
The first floor redo’s pièce de résistance, though, has to be the black-and-white family portraits scattered about. They first appear behind glass on the entry’s “Wall of Fam,” a gallery dedicated to their loved ones, and then pop up again on the living room coffee table peppered amongst a knot of stones. Ola says the latter are easily the greatest conversation starters she’s ever displayed, but I have a feeling every corner of this heartfelt tribute has visitors talking. Scroll down to see more, and enjoy! —Garrett
Photography by Ola Swarn
Image above: To add interest to the living area, Ola put molding up around the window frame.
Window coverings – Select Blinds
Art over piano – Great Big Canvas peel-and-stick print
Rug – The Home Depot
Natural fiber rug – World Market
White chairs, gold floor lamp – OfferUp
Leopard print lumbar pillows – Etsy
Necklace on stand – pistachio nut DIY
Photo frames – Blick
Boho print – Jade & Serif
Ottoman – Hobby Lobby
Artwork – Natalie O Designs
Wallpaper – Osborne & Little
Chair covers – ComfortWorks
Light fixture – Wayfair