The View from Mary's Farm for September 2006
January 1, 1970Hello, friends,
I'm sorry this is so late. I've been traveling in the recent weeks but hope, in future issues, to include some new features to the newsletter. Stay tuned! I hope you are all well and enjoying this, so far, glorious fall. Is there any such thing as an autumn that does not, at least in some way, make you happy to be alive? I'll be sending along the October essay pretty soon!
Best wishes to you all,
Kindling the New
A recent cartoon in The New Yorker depicts an older couple sitting amidst the construction debris of the interior of their house. The caption is “Our dream is to live long enough to see the end of our renovation.” I have often spoken those words here, where, one room at a time, the walls have fallen to sledge hammers, doors lifted off their hinges, windows crowbarred out and thresholds pried up and away from their long service. There is little in this house that is as it was on that September day nine years ago when I signed the agreement to purchase Mary’s farm.
The building was sound, except for the foundation, which, I was told by the house inspector, was “one of the worst he had ever seen.” Sobering. But, like so many others who have entered into these tumultuous relationships with old houses, I was floating on the river of denial when I imagined that the house could be fixed up with just a bit here and there. One thing always leads to another. Some architects had advised that I tear the place down and start over. “It will cost you a lot less in the long run,” I was told, more than once. Houses such as this once was are now referred to as “teardowns,” to me, a chilling word. No, I’m too stubborn and frugal. I wanted too much of what was left standing from 1762 and years in between to even consider taking away the whole.
With the many walls and doors between all the small rooms of this big house gone, the incredible light of our open sky spilled into what had been a dark and segmented place. I welcomed the light, a virtual presence that is now every bit as much a part of the house as the old floors and remaining doors.
Fortunately, I burn wood. The water-stained ceiling moldings, the cream-colored baseboards, the treads to the old stairway, narrow as a mountain stream, along with miles of lath – many fires have been kindled with these colorful pieces of the old house. As I cut them to length, the sticks were prickly with nails, heavy with many coats of paint or wallpaper or hunks of plaster, and redolent of the rich lives that walked those floors and leaned against those walls. I sometimes rake the ashes beneath the grate of the woodstove and find not only square-cut nails but hinges and latches. I have saved as much as one person can without sinking from the weight of its heft as well as its legacy. The rest of it has gone up in smoke and the smell of its history lingers in the mountain air.
In spite of all that’s gone, much is left. Mostly, what remains is the skin and the skeleton and what is referred to as the “footprint.” That word seems especially fitting, as the impression of the old structure is what remains, the evidence that it has stood in this place and left its mark.
We’re almost there, the house and I, greatly changed but still standing, still breathing, still bearing testimony, leaving me to wonder what I will use to light my fires as the next heating season draws near.
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