Monday, June 8, 2009

This Old House

In our nearly 30 years of marriage, Ron and I have lived in a lot of old houses. We both grew up in old houses, with all their character and charm, and agree they are infinitely preferable to sterile, new houses which haven't been around long enough to develop any personality.

The first place we lived when we were married in 1979 was a t
railer house perched on the edge of the family farm and the whole time we lived there I pined for a "real" house which, in my mind, was a structure with an upstairs, a basement to run to during tornadoes and, preferably, a porch with a swing.

Our first "real" home was a two-bedroom rambler that we bought from my grandmother, which fit one of those criteria. She and Grandpa had built the house in 1945 when my dad was just a boy. It was as plain and basic as you could get with all the post-war shortages--a mail-order house that arrived in sections on a train. As long as I had been alive, it had had the same gray carpet, wood paneled walls, heavy gold draperies and red linoleum on the kitchen floor and counter tops. My young husband and I moved into it with our two little girls in 1986.

We immediate
ly began to make the house our own. We gutted the thin walls that were insulated with something that resembled aluminum foil and added four inches of pink fiberglass insulation, dry wall, and new double- paned windows half as big as the ones we removed. Down came the old shutters with the pine tree cut-outs and up went wide masonite siding to cover the old-fashioned narrow cedar. We cut down the overgrown evergreens that had stood sentry on either side of the front door for decades. There was new carpet to install, new counter tops, new flooring in the kitchen, and we stripped layers of paint to unveil the original birch cabinets. In the kitchen, the finishing touch was the installation of an octagonal-shaped stained-glass window that cast brilliant red and yellow light on the new floor. When my Gram came to visit, I noticed she seemed a little melancholy, and I couldn't understand why. I know she was glad we were in her old house and that someone was there to keep it up, and yet...

A few years later, an opportunity arose for us to sell my Gram's house and buy a larger place two blocks away on Cedar Avenue--with space to spare for our children now numbered three. It was a huge step up for our family in terms of square-footage, yard size, and the quaint ammenities I loved. This old house was built in 1916--also as a pre-fab, but boasted bay windows, second floor dormers, wide baseboard and trim, a clawfoot tub, a fully finished basement, a tongue and groove pine-lined porch, and a brick fireplace. I didn't waste a moment feeling sad or nostalgic about leaving my Gram's little house on 411 Larson Avenue.

In the years to follow we moved numerous times--sometimes renting, sometimes buying a house, fixing it up and reselling it. Our family had grown from three children to five when we bought, what we thought would be, our final real estate purchase--a home on Clear Lake near Dalton. This was the old family farmhouse--a two story wood frame structure that had been used as a grainery before Ron's parents moved in, swept out the remains of the wheat, and raised 10 children there--adding on whenever necessary. When one of the sons bought the family farm in the early 90s, he built a new house and sold the old one to his brother who moved it to the lake to use as a cabin.

After we bought the lakehome in the spring of 1997, we put countless hours of sweat and muscle into customizing our new nest--painting, staining, installing wood flooring, tearing out old walls and putting up new ones, finally adding a beautiful stone fireplace. Our two oldest daughters married and left home and we daydreamed about grandchildren crawling across the same floors Ron had grown up playing on. But due to a number of unforseen plot twists in our story, we sold our dream house three years ago and bought an unassuming place in Fergus Falls. This house was built in 1897 and wasn't much too look at from the street. It had been moved to its current lot from Lincoln Avenue across town where it had most recently served as a beauty parlor/gift shop. Though heart-broken to leave our place at the lake, I couldn't help but feel smitten by the charming front porch, open wood staircase and woodwork, and the stained-glass/leaded windows of our newest/old house on Fir Avenue. We saw potential.

We set to work; painting inside and out,
moving walls and wiring and plumbing, finishing the basement, adding windows, landscaping, building a porch and pavered patio on the back of the house. As we worked, we paid careful attention to match our work with the time period of the house--preserving the integrity of the style. Because, with all the work we had done on so many houses over the years, we had learned something: This house--though only wood and mortar--will be here when we are gone.Last week, on a walking tour of Ashby, I strolled past the two houses we had owned in our first decade of marriage. The house on Cedar has been remodeled beyond recognition. Gone are the old dormers on the second story, replaced by the efficiency of a full second floor. The patio door we installed is still there but the old steps are covered by an elaborate system of wooden ramps. The lilac bushes that I transplanted as seedlings the size of my hand are now a massive hedge ten feet tall. Strangers moved about the yard, watering flowers. We waved, and moved on.

We walked from Cedar down to my Gram's house on Larson and found it quiet and dejected. The bachelor who had bought the house from us died during the winter and the house was standing empty for the first time since we moved out 20+ years ago. I desperately wanted to look in the windows and marched boldly into the yard despite the protests of my sister and mother. The maple tree that Gram had planted when my dad was still at home--carefully watering and warning kids not to swing on--is old and dying, fragmented by a hapless strike of lightning in recent years. I went up the south sidewalk, carefully scanning the weed patch that used to be her garden of moss roses to see if there was any remnant of her perenneils left. Nothing. The backyard is overgrown with trees that haven't been pruned in many years. I plucked a white lilac from an luxurious bush recalling how my Gram had yelled at Grandpa every time he mowed over that tiny little smudge of shrubbery with the riding mower. I guess the bush won after all.

I peered in the dirty garage window. I called my youngest daughter over and pointed out the spot where I had climbed up the wall to feed bologna sandwiches to baby sparrows in the eaves. I noticed the neighbor, who was sitting in his backyard watching us. I walked over, introduced myself to him, and told him how we were curious to see this place four generations of our family had called home. He asked, "Would you like me to unlock it so you can go inside?" My pulse quickened. I felt as excited as a child on Christmas Eve. I burst through the back door suppressing the urge to yell, "Yoo HOO!!!" just to see if there was an echo back. I could hardly speak.

The tiny stained glass window cast yellow and red light on the same linoleum we had laid more than twenty years earlier. The strawberry-patterned wallpaper was still there, faded from red to pink berries. Remnants of the old panelling, Gram's pride and joy, still covered halfway up the wall in the dining room. I showed Victoria the front bedroom that had once been my dad's, The Shoe Closet my sister and I had spent hours playing in, and the side of the room where her older sisters had slept in bunk beds under matching Care Bear bedspreads. I walked across the hall into what had been my Gram's room--such a tiny place I remembered as much bigger. Here is where her bed stood and I had spent many nights snuggled against her warm side, listening to her snore. Here is where her oak dresser stood that held her silky nighties--the same dresser that has traveled with us for every move we had ever made faithfully holding my clothes. It was in this very room that my water broke in the middle of a hot July night in 1987 and we rushed to the hospital where, hours later, I gave birth to our own son. My eyes burned and my throat felt tight.

When I was younger, I never understood people feeling sentimental over things. Part of the reason for my lack of emotion was that I owned nothing. Over the years, we have accumulated more stuff and, while I realize that Stuff is Just Stuff, I am increasingly aware of the fact that the things we own are not infused with instrinsic value: They have worth because of what they represent. This house, though worn and tired and run-down through the years, was once new and a source of great pride. My sisters and I, then two of my own daughters, learned to walk in this house. As a ten year-old, I sobbed uncontrollably in this living room when I learned my parents had nearly died that day in a car accident. I stood at this kitchen counter watching my Grandpa ashen with pain as he experienced a deadly stroke and my worried Gram made room for the ambulance gurnery that carried him away down the sidewalk for the last time. I have enough memories of this house to write a thick book. It is empty now, but I hope someone will buy it who will love it and take care of it out of respect for the people who used to care.

The other day, I watched my husband install a new window in our current old house. (Ron has long said that remodeling is risky business because you never know what you're going to find once you cut into a wall. I think it must be something like a surgeon doing exploratory surgery and I feel a twinge of pain for the house when I see all the exposed insulation and old boards. Silly, I know.) We have speculated long and intensely about what used to be where in this house of ours: "Was there a door going out this wall? What kind of wall was here before? Why did someone remove this window? Why did someone cover the maple flooring with carpet and not put the wide baseboard back up?" And we have been careful to uphold the dignity of the house because we know that, though we are legally home-owners, no one in this lifetime can really own anything. We are paying money every month to BORROW this house and CALL it ours, just as countless other families have done before us. Saws have cut into these walls, nails have been driven and removed. People and pets have lived and died here. And the walls have been silent. Laughter, parties, guests, deaths, and mourning have all taken place in these rooms. Whispered conversations at bedtime, loud arguments and slamming doors, thousands of meals eaten through the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and two world wars. It has been subjected to the installation of indoor plumbing, electric lights and now, a computer or TV in every room.

This time it is our turn to do what we wish with this mute collection of wood and mortar. With every project we complete, I find it is with a new respect and a certain sadness. People invest in real estate because they feel it is so much more enduring that fickle electronics which require hourly updates, or cars and furniture that rapidly go out of style. Yet even a seemingly sturdy house is the perfect example that everything in this world is subject to decay and needs constant maintenence. Well-kept houses last longer than a human lifetime yet they are temporal. Empty-handed we come into this world, and empty-handed we will leave. I find I am increasingly able to sympathize with Solomon who, after experiencing all the glorious riches this life had to offer, lamented, "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity." Any labor, no matter how noble, outside the perspective of God's dominion and purpose, is "chasing the wind."

To combat feelings of melancholy that sometimes wash over me as I work in the house or yard, I remind myself of what is lasting and important: The eternal souls of men. People will outlast all the earthly things that seem to outlast them. It may be that God will allow me to live another 25-30 years in this house, or somewhere else on His planet. In the time He gives, it is my prayer that God will use all that I have, which I can't really own anyway, and all that I am, which isn't mine to claim either, to further a Kingdom which will last forever. And, one day, we will together experience what it truly means to be Home.


  1. I love your writings. Let me know when you publish your book!

  2. Okay. Can I just say you are amazing? So many memories, sigh. I SO WISH I could have gone into Gram's house with you! Maybe if it hasn't sold yet, the man next door will allow us to go in when I'm home next month. I peeked in the windows several years ago when there was still someone living there! I am probably overly sentimental about places and things so this really struck home for me! I SOOO miss Gram and look forward to the day when I can see her and say "you hoo" and hear her respond with hers! Love you!

  3. Oooh I didn't know all these stories! Too bad I didn't go on that walk with you guys to see the house.
    Good blog. I like your insights. :)