Down East 2013 ©
Old houses give up their secrets gradually and with great reluctance. When my wife and I bought our little bungalow on the Megunticook River eight years ago, we had it professionally inspected . . . twice. The seller had commissioned his own report, but we wanted an objective opinion. Both assessments came back with minimal reservations. Before the closing, we asked a friend who is a Realtor to go through every room with us, pointing out anything that might be amiss. Another friend, a builder, poked around the muddy crawlspace and wriggled through the narrow passages of the “attic.” (I use the term loosely since there isn’t headroom enough for a toddler to stand up in it.) We ran every test imaginable: for mold, radon, and lead paint. I’m surprised, in retrospect, that we didn’t hire a Chinese mystic to do a feng shui assessment.
Two months after we moved in, the roof began to leak (in fairness: we had been warned it might happen in a year). I spent more than a few rainstorms crouched in that narrow attic with tarps, duct tape, and a staple gun doing emergency damage control until the roofers could begin their work. When finally they were able to erect their scaffolds, they informed us that, by the way, the chimney could stand to be repointed.
One odd thing we’d noticed on our initial inspection was that all of the doorknobs had been put on upside down, with the keyholes above the handles. Over time we discovered that everything in the house was inverted. The polarity on the electrical outlets was reversed. The drain in the tub was at the opposite end from the tap so that bath water emptied (or failed to empty) uphill. My wife and I formed an image of the previous homeowner as a tinkerer from the backward Bizarro world of Superman comics.
Because none of these defects was serious, expensive, or irreparable, we came to find them funny. The flaws were what made our house unique. Every new oddity we discovered — the oversize furnace filter that had been folded in half to almost fit — gave us a new story to tell dinner guests. The hidden room in the shed with reflective walls and overhead grow lights became the most popular stop on our impromptu tours.
When one looks at photographs of beautiful homes in magazines, one is often struck by their seeming perfection. Every lampshade is meant to subtly evoke the tone of the nearby accent wall. Some residences seem so precise and dust-free that you can only imagine them being occupied by androids. But if a home is the ultimate expression of its owner’s personality, then it must be true that its imperfections are, paradoxically, the qualities that make it perfect. We human beings are flawed creatures, after all: the sum of our various blemishes, peccadillos, and quirks. And just as you come to love another human being because of their idiosyncrasies and not despite them, so it is with a house. That’s the lesson my baffling, backward home has taught me.