Fear of Old Houses
Admit it: all of us who own old houses are afraid of them. We are afraid of water damage around the chimney, ancient wiring in the attic, and leaks in the cellar. We are afraid of crumbling plaster, rolling floors, and doors that refuse to click softly shut. No matter how hard we labor to make over our beautiful homes, they remain like old boxers, battered and scarred by previous owners, stubbornly upright despite thousands of blows and knockdowns. Yet they are mysterious and fragile, ready to crumble or swallow money without warning.I would find owning one hardly worth the effort but for my father.
My father was not only unafraid of old houses, he embraced them no matter their disrepair. He loved their souls. In 1968, when I was ten, we moved into an old Cape in Minot overlooking the Androscoggin. The house needed paint and had no plumbing other than a gravity-fed line through a lead pipe from a spring to a hand pump in the kitchen. The roof leaked, the attic was infested with vermin (bats, to mention one species), and the furnace was a single large grate in a corner room. An attached ell sagged into a sway-backed barn rotting into the dirt.
That winter was deathly cold, with snow well above my head. At bedtime I hovered over the furnace grate as the hot air ballooned my robe, wrapped it tightly around my body, and scurried down a hallway to my bedroom where I leapt between bedclothes so cold they felt wet.
In summer the windows provided no relief from the heat, only serving as points of entry for relentless, whining mosquitoes. I can still remember red streaks on the faded wallpaper from whacking those bloodsuckers with a fly swatter. It seemed hotter then, walking to the Minot General Store to buy comic books or making roads for toy cars in our dirt driveway. One night, my father cornered a snarling raccoon in our attic with a nine iron. A neighbor snagged a noose around the animal's neck and took it away in a sack. Some time later I saw a raccoon running to the river trailing a rope that was tied around its neck. By then, my father had sealed the attic.
But my father loved that house. He worked tirelessly, refinishing rooms, replacing ceilings, putting in plumbing, sealing the attic, repairing the roof, and painting the outside. Even at ten, I could appreciate his dedication and watched in awe at his energy. All this, I thought, is something special. That house became a crusade for our family as each room was finished in turn. Over the next two years, the house in Minot seemed to brighten under the loving hands of my father, as though he transferred some glow of pride into the old wood, windows, and shingles.
That was the beginning of my father's thirty-odd-year love affair with old houses in Maine. These were not trysts or discreet arrangements; he dragged us along like a pirate lustily seeking his gold for all the world's witness. He worked days, weekends, holidays, and well into the night, no matter the season. It was obvious that he was only truly happy with a paintbrush or hammer in his hand, sawdust in his hair, and his knuckles skinned by shingles or mortar. He proudly displayed what he called a "blue nail" after an errant hammer blow. A bottle of turpentine was ever present at our sink for removing paint from fingernails. He was never afraid of ladders or tools that I could see. For many years he bought and sold old houses, polishing each in turn into a jewel that, I'm sure, dazzled many eyes.
As a teenager, I was dazzled less than most. My father decided to rip down a large plaster ceiling at his Cornish house. While my mother and I stood in a corner wearing safety goggles and bandanas, he swung a sledgehammer upward. Plaster, lath, and a hundred years of silt between the joists crashed upon us. I don't imagine, looking back, that the tearing down took very long; the cleanup, however, was horrendous. To clear the tall heap of rubble in the center of the room, we opened the windows and heaved it outside onto our pickup truck.
My father sent me to a neighbor's house for water. Relieved to be out of the dirt and dust, I strolled down the hill, breathing deeply and enjoying the sunshine. Two girls who appeared to be about my age let me into their house and poured water into a jug. They were very cute and a little giggly, I thought. I pushed my safety goggles atop my head and tried to be cool, the way that a teenaged boy should be. On the way out, I glimpsed myself in a mirror — my hair frosted with dirt and mice nests, my face black but for an eye mask of pale skin.
The things we do for our old houses. They remain mute, their windows like old, surprised eyes watching the world renew around them each spring as they grow older and wiser. The walls in my house will never talk, but there are times when I feel my father's presence. He looks over my shoulder as I refinish a wall or plane a door, and he waves at me from a window as I return from the hardware store with a new tool.
Whatever the old house presents, I know that the problem is a matter of energy and love, two qualities that my father possessed in abundance. Those are what an old house responds to best, I learned long ago. It is effort never wasted.