A friend recently sent me a Modern Love piece by Cindy Chupack from the New York Times. I was surprised I missed this one from last year as I always read those posts. It certainly struck a chord.
For those of you who have read The Reverse Commute you know about the squirrels in Sophie’s bathroom. For those of you who know me well, you are aware of the fact that little story is advice taken from Hemingway. Write what you know. Yes it is true, one morning while sitting on the toilet seat cover waiting for the water to warm in the shower, I watched three squirrels playfully run along the rafters of the addition we were building off the back of our old house.
There were so many stories about that house on a dead end road along the river. The property was beautiful, the sunsets were breathtaking. It was a lovely place to raise children. At the closing we had no keys to give the new owners because we never locked the doors. When my younger daughter left for college, she struggled to open the door to her dorm room and turned to me and yelled, “How come you never taught me how to use a key?”
Tolstoy once wrote in Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This could be said about houses today, all those cookie cutter McMansions built on what was once farmland. All perfect with their granite countertops and shiny new appliances. All a theme on the same style architecture, painted in approved shades of taupe, sage, and slate. Nothing like an old house with slanted floors, drafty windows, and ghosts.
Yes, we had a ghost. A peanut butter ghost. The soul of a little girl who died in the late 1800’s and stole the peanut butter late at night. It is true peanut butter would disappear but I suspect it was my husband spreading it on top of his chocolate chip cookies.
We lived among the Northern white pines, a tree that self prunes, littering the yard with fallen branches each winter. They can’t handle the weight of heavy wet snow or ice, begging the question why did they settle here in the frigid Northeast? It wasn’t just branches in our yard, it was entire trees, tall trees. They can grow to be 150 feet tall. We once had three trees come down in just one storm.
The yard was a small arboretum. We had blue spruce, lilac, apple, pear and larch trees. But it was the quaking aspen that took out my van during a violent summer thunderstorm, minutes after the entire family made a run for the house.
When I moved to Florida, people asked, “Aren’t you worried about hurricanes?” I replied, “No, should I be?” At least with a hurricane you have advance warning.
There were so many stories. Mice in the kitchen, bats in the bedroom, a Mama raccoon and her babies in the chimney. Then there was the weekend I went to Rhode Island with my oldest daughter who was just beginning to walk. We were concerned about lead paint so my husband was staying home to redo the window trim.
I arrived home to discover a mess in my living room because instead of painting window trim he took the ceiling down. “She’s not going to chew on the ceiling,” I screamed at him. In the end I forgave him because he had exposed some beautiful original beams from 1728, the year the house was built, and my children never did chew the woodwork or get lead poisoning.
But the best story of all was the day it rained in my kitchen. It was another weekend when I headed to Rhode Island to visit friends and family, this time with two babies in tow. I forget what he was supposed to do that weekend, the projects were endless.
My cousin Kathy loved telling the story of that Sunday afternoon when she stopped by to drop something or other off, let herself in the kitchen door (remember there were no locks), and was blinded by sunlight. My husband was outside on a ladder, looking in. She stood in the kitchen gazing up at the blue sky, and asked, “Does Sheila know about this?”
No, Sheila did not know about this. Apparently he always had a vision of a cathedral ceiling with exposed beams, he just never mentioned it to me. The project took longer than anticipated, as these projects always do, but he assured me the forecast called for good weather all week. He covered the unfinished roof with a bright blue tarp to match the sky that day.
Let me remind you of something here, the house was in New Hampshire where 75% of the time the weatherman is wrong. The next evening I was in the kitchen cooking dinner when another summer storm came out of the west, picking up steam as it barreled down the Squamscott River and into our backyard, blowing the blue sky tarp off the roof and exposing the forbidding dark clouds that began to pour rain on my old linoleum faux red brick floor. I don’t remember what I thought as I looked up at the sky and felt the rain soak my face. “I would like to kill my husband” might have flashed through my mind.
Luckily he was close by. He ran up the ladder and secured the tarp to the exposed beams as lighting ripped across the yard. I was reminded of the time the giant larch tree was struck by lightening, leaving a corkscrew scar along the trunk of the tree, bark mulch covering the ground and a shattered old redwood lounge chair nearby.
We survived the storm. I washed the kitchen floor. It seemed like the perfect time to do it. I think we ordered takeout pizza after the storm passed.
It is amazing how time shapes memory. We look back fondly on those twenty two years in the old house with the unlocked doors by the river. The day I drove out the driveway for the very last time was bittersweet. I knew I would miss the years we spent there but would I miss the house itself? No, I was ready to say goodbye.
Happy Holidays from my old house to yours.