I have missed the point. For years, I have written about gracious living and thought I knew what that meant. Not that gracious living is an art I have mastered. Donkeys will fly first. But it is the nirvana toward which I clumsily travel, in halting steps, like the last-place contestant in a three-legged race.

In my wrongheaded pursuit of gracious living I have for years doggedly chased the vision of a pristine, tranquil home, well-appointed and orderly, always ready to host guests with spotless stemware and pressed linens -- a home in which entertaining and grand meals would look effortless, and where such niceties of daily living as fresh flowers and towel sets tied in blue satin ribbon were ever present and universally shared by all who lived there, even the dogs, which would never lick themselves in public.

If you want to celebrate fall in your home decor, the perfect place to start is your fireplace mantel, one of the most visible spots in your home. (MCT)
If you want to celebrate fall in your home decor, the perfect place to start is your fireplace mantel, one of the most visible spots in your home. (MCT)

I am wrong. Gracious living is not about trying to get the perfect luster; it's about living with grace. Now, don't worry. I'm not going to go all biblical here. But earlier this month, that connection hit me like a Champagne cork in the forehead.

Since both my children went off to college, the younger one just last fall, I've been living alone and much more neatly -- a way of life that rather suits the Miss Picky Pants in me. But last week my older daughter came home to visit for a week -- with her boyfriend. This was kind of like having one of those Chinese fireworks -- the kind that spin unpredictably and whistle and throw off colored sparks and raise general chaos -- go off inside the house.


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However -- and now you're going to think I've started taking calm-down medication, which I haven't -- I actually liked it.

Finding the peanut butter smears on the counter, the shoes strewn under the table, the counter stools willy-nilly instead of standing at attention, the disheveled beds looking catawampus, dishes in the sink and an empty milk carton in the fridge gave me a warm feeling.

I liked these signs of life, because they meant not only that the kids were home, but also that they felt at home.

And it made me rethink the definition of a gracious home -- which I now realize is a place where people want to be. The aim isn't beautiful, though that's nice; the aim is welcoming.

See, I haven't lowered my bar. I got a different bar. While I used to focus on the superficial qualities of a gracious home, now I care more about the deeper qualities. (I hope this doesn't just mean I'm getting old.)

At the heart of the word gracious is the word grace. Both words come from the same Latin root, gratia, meaning esteem, favor and indulgence. Grace is kindness when the opposite could be warranted. To experience grace is to receive kindness we don't necessarily deserve.

We've all seen grace's more common opposite: The gonzo mom who screams at her kids in the store, the customer who is rude to a waiter or sales clerk, the motorist impatient with the slow pedestrian in the crosswalk, the red-faced soccer dad chewing out the referee. The world needs less of that.

Grace starts at home. You can't have a gracious home without grace.

I grew up in a home that, while not fancy, was full of grace. This past week made me think back on all the times I received unmerited kindness. Here is a small sampling, and a start:

Flower power. Once, as a teen, I left a cone of incense burning on the Formica counter in my bathroom. It left a permanent brown scar. Though harsh words were called for, they didn't come. My mother smoothed it all over with a flower sticker.

Budding beauty. My dad, an early riser, loved his rose garden. Many mornings I would wake up to a single fresh-cut rosebud on my dresser.

Double trouble. Another time when attempting to sew a bathing suit, I cut out the pattern on my cotton eyelet bedspread. I didn't notice that the scissor tip had gotten caught in an eyelet hole, causing me to cut out a second pair of bikini bottoms -- from the bedspread. Mom spread a comforter strategically over the mishap.

Missed cue. As a younger girl, I went with my family to have dinner at the home of my dad's boss, where I played billiards for the first time. I made a quick turn while holding the pool cue and snapped it in two. Without missing a beat, my dad's boss said, "That cue always made the worst shots. I'm glad to be done with it!" And he squired it ceremoniously to the trash.

That is grace, my friends. You can have the most beautiful home in the world, but if you bristle when someone spills a drink, the dog soils the rug, the kids make bike tracks on the lawn or get popcorn grease on the sofa, you, too, have missed the point.

So the next time the neighbor kid's baseball goes through your window, the dog waters the Christmas tree, you find cat barf in your shoe, your kids trail beach sand across the floor or do a chin-up on the towel bar, please remember grace.

Contact Marni Jameson through www.marnijameson.com.