I'm most recently a writer. In the six plus decades of my life, I've been a wife, mother, grandmother, Jill of all trades though mistress of but a few, and most of the time pretty content with my lot. As a much younger person, I believed I was called to write, but life and living distracted me for most of those decades. An unwilling transplant from the South, twenty years ago I unintentionally landed in the geographical center of the US. Writing came about in part due to the unwillingness, I expect. When caring for family, gardening, and renovating a century-old house failed to provide sufficient creative outlets, I turned to the one thing I always intended to do. Eight titles later, I'm grateful I found myself while Lost in the Plains!
Sunday, March 17, 2013
This Old House
A little over thirteen years ago, when the world was hovering at a new millennium and Y2K was the buzz word for pending doom, my husband and I set out from our sweet but overly booked life in North Florida, pointing our self-moving van in the general direction of Kansas. I say general direction because there is no direct route, but a choice of meandering paths connecting the two locales. That trip we chose to go more or less north by more or less west, with the misguided idea that interstate highways are preferable to roads less traveled. We've since rethought that notion and on subsequent trips, we've tested most of the possibilities, finally arriving at the conclusion that you can't really get there from here.
But I digress. What I meant to tell you about was my house. I'm afraid I most often refer to it as "mine" rather than "ours", not because I don't wholeheartedly share my life beneath this roof with John, but because I'm the one who has the more intimate relationship with its antique walls, windows, floors and eccentric systems. John just lives here.
This house, built in 1889, began life as a flat-roofed Italianate with a wrap-around porch, a fairly simple structure without much in the way of ornamentation. It would be unrecognizable to its first occupants today, thanks to the bizarre vision of subsequent owners who raised it off the ground, took away the porch and pitched its roof. From what I've been able to tell during my excavations beneath a century of misguided interior decor, the smooth plaster walls were initially papered and the woodwork painted. Since it seems these elements were meant to last the life of the house, however long that might be, any refurbishment was simply applied over the original. Thus there were layers of paper and/or paint the thickness of sturdy cardboard on the walls, and countless coats in every color of the rainbow gluing the windows shut when I first arrived on the scene. Add to that the sad state of the cabinet-less kitchen and the horror chambers intended to pass for bathrooms, and my husband made the gentle observation in our first days of residence that he'd been under the impression we were moving into a livable house.
In fact, we had foolishly come to this house sight unseen. Well, there had been the photographs, which presented a charming, but deceptively intact image of the exterior, and we'd been given a vague description of the interior, certainly nothing that did justice to its actual condition. We came on faith and quite honestly, our faith was about to be tested. We arrived long past dark, after days of driving cross-country, to a cold, crumbling, echoing maze of a seriously aged house. Daunted, but too exhausted to flee, we slept on the floor that first night and the next morning, obviously still too stunned to think rationally, we moved our belongings in as if we believed we could actually live in this ruin. Once in, my weary husband declared he wasn't leaving until they carried him out on a slab. And I declared myself in love.
You see, I have this thing about old houses. As long as they aren't haunted, I immediately fall for them. (This was not my first affair with an old house, although I'm convinced now it is my last.) As I stumbled groggily around this one that first morning, I detected nothing but benign if not precisely welcoming energy. There was an intriguing charm to the quaint (read awkward, ungainly, nonsensical) floor plan and the few original features (fifteen floor-to-ceiling windows in hopeless disrepair, a warped front door and one lonely mantelpiece) not butchered in the name of modernization through the decades. I immediately began to picture what the house could be when loved back to life. Frankly, in that first delusional moment, I should have been whisked off to the comfort of a padded cell. That said, I've loved every exasperating minute of our relationship and the house has loved me back for my efforts.
Thirteen years later, we're not anywhere near finished loving this place, room by room, back to what I envisioned. We've come a long way, though. Now by we, understand I mean mostly me. I did the work, while John earned the money to pay for materials and washed the dishes so I could stay on task. You don't need the gory details. Just suffice it to say there isn't a square inch of the walls, woodwork, ceilings and floors I haven't stripped, sanded, patched and painted, at least once and some cases twice now. Thankfully, several years ago, fate brought my son to live with us and he has taken on the heavier chores of completely renovating bathrooms and rebuilding some of the exterior features I could never have done on my own. The house has been vastly improved, but like all old houses, it will never stop demanding more of the same. Meanwhile, we can now live, work and enjoy each other here, which is really all anyone needs to do in a house anyway.
I sometimes question where this house fits in the scheme of my life, whether I was actually meant to arrive here for a further course in resourcefulness, or if the house and I simply managed to forge a relationship out of mutual need, despite the odds against us. The fact that I've been at this address for longer than any before must have some significance. Would I have stayed this long if the house hadn't kept me so thoroughly occupied? Were there lessons about patience and tolerance, about stewardship and frugality to be finally learned here? There have been times when the demands of the house have provided therapy, focusing my energies away from greater concerns over which I had no control. I often wonder what might have happened to this house if we had not been thrown together by chance. Perhaps I should also ask what would have happened to me, had I not landed in a house like this one, offering challenges and rewards only something with its age and experience could.
My time here has been filled with milestones, births and deaths, unforeseen changes and even a new career. The house has a share in all that, not merely as the place where things happened, but a participant in the events of these years we've spent together. I will never recall one without the other, I'm sure. Of all the places I've lived, this old house has come very close to realizing that elusive dream we all have of home. For that gift alone, I will count my time here as blessed.