Mama Squirrel’s House
By Jim Dodson
Every morning during our predawn walk through our neighborhood in Greensboro’s Old Starmount with the dogs, we pass three houses of similar age but in different stages of life.
Two door up sits a fine old house in the throes of serious reconstruction, my family home of 40 years, as it happens, now owned by a nice lady and fellow gardener whose work crew is busy dissembling whole sections brick by brick. On the one hand, it’s sad to see rooms I once knew better than the creases of my hand disappear in a cloud of dust; on the other, nice to think the old place will soon have a new lease on life, my claim on it consigned to mortar and memories.
Around the corner sits a fine old house in a shroud of tangled vines and overgrown shrubs, long neglected, its charming bay window and handsome Craftsman lines fading year by the year. Once upon a time, whoever built that house must surely have loved it, for it looks like a woodcutter’s cottage in a fairy tale, lost in a haunted glen. But a glimpse of its side yard reveals a garage crammed with so much blessed rusted junk, my wife ruefully jokes that the property is possibly being prepped for an episode of Hoarders.
Still, it never fails to seize my attention — and fire my home-loving imagination — every time we pass by, whether under the cover of weekday darkness or the light of a Sunday morning. I think about the people who once lived there and never imagined what time would do to their dream house, if it was indeed that — rather like the dream house of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.
As we pass, I wish it a fate similar to that of my mother’s house, hoping some angel of mercy will buy the property, gut the garage and bring the cottage back to life in the nick of time. The inner woodcutter in me aches to take my axe and pruning shears to the jungle that swarms it.
House No. 3 is in much better kit, though it sat vacant most of the summer, a big, classic, white two-story affair bunkered by ancient shrubs and a walled back garden enclosing a patio and large screened porch.
Near summer’s end, a work crew showed up to blitz the shrubs and rebuild the screened porch. A fresh coat of white paint was applied to the house, the lawn was fertilized and mowed, new plantings tastefully added. A few weeks ago, as we passed in the November dark, every room of the place was alight, and two young people, a woman and man, could be seen painting rooms, or refinishing floors. They were newlyweds, we decided, young marrieds hard at work on their first house, eager to make a house their home.
The whole neighborhood, come to think of it, is turning over with new people, new families, new creative energy as the next wave of homeowners get down to the work of rehabbing restoring, reviving.
This includes us, of course, and the fine old house we purchased just over a year ago. As it happens, we are only the second owners of a handsome bungalow built for the Corry family almost 70 years ago, a clan of talented builders and musicians who were happy to learn that a Dodson had bought Mama Squirrel’s house. That’s the lovely way her grandchildren pronounced Mama Merle Corry’s name, and how I like to think of her myself.
I grew up with the Corry boys, and Mama Squirrel was one of my own mama’s best friends, almost like a second mother. Her house was always my favorite in the neighborhood, and I couldn’t believe our extreme good fortune to somehow wind up owning it four or five decades later, by some trick of fate or timing. Can a house choose its next inhabitants? I have wise friends who believe so, and I’m not so sure it isn’t true. Houses have their own kinds of souls, graced or haunted by the lives they’ve sheltered.
That said, realistically we’ll only be here for a while — maybe 15 or 20 years, tops — before Mama Squirrel’s house passes into other hands, perhaps those of our children or some other kindly souls who will love it and renew it with their own with thoughtful updates.
In the meantime, life’s sweet impermanence makes us happy caretakers of the now — and winter is the ideal time to take stock of the changes we’ve enacted and ponder further changes for coming days.
A brief accounting:
With all due reverence but with a pragmatic gardener’s ruthlessness, I dug out the dead or dying 70-year-old azaleas and leggy hollies that hid much of the house from view, shortly before we painted it a beautiful earthy hue called “Keystone Gray.” I also removed a cluster of several dead or dying dogwood trees and saved an ancient Washington Hawthorn we named “George” from being swallowed whole by evil English ivy. On the slope around this grand old tree, I created a large area of mixed ornamental grasses that should be breathtaking in a few years.
By early summer I’d also planted 18 trees on the property, creating my own mini-arboretum in a neighborhood known for its towering hardwood trees: Japanese maples, river birches, Cherokee dogwoods, Chinese cedars, flowering cherries and an Autumn Blaze maple that lived up to its billing quite nicely. Chances are, I’ll be pushing up daisies of my own before these young trees reach their peak of beauty, but that’s just nature’s way of saying it’s a true optimist who plants a forest he may never live long enough to fully enjoy.
I also framed the front walkway with beds of French lavender, Russian sage and pink muhly grass that looked otherworldly beautiful by summer’s end, bordered to the east by a hedge of pink Knock Out roses. Several neighbors paused in their evening walks to comment about how pleased they were to see Mama Squirrel’s house and garden looking so lush.
Inside, our first act of homage and revived homemaking was to brighten up juniper-paneled rooms (and cover some exotic Otto Zenke wallpaper in the foyer) with a fresh coat of paint aptly called “Ancient Linen.” We uncovered glorious wooden floors that had been hidden beneath Mama Squirrel’s beloved pink carpet far too long. Her favorite little den off the back side of the house is currently being transformed into a formal library and home office with custom-made bookshelves, new carpet, gallery lighting and a set of handsome French café doors that lead to the vast screened porch we were somehow smart enough to leave alone. Before the cold weather fully sets in, we’re also having the gas fireplace fittings removed to allow a pair of fireplaces to host crackling wood fires once again.
As I sit and review our progress this winter, planning the next phase of garden work come spring on the untouched “wild” corner of my backyard, I can’t help but think about Thomas Jefferson, who went broke working on his house and garden in his dotage. (He recovered some of his losses by selling 6,000 of his personal library books to the U.S. government to replace those lost when the British burned the Library of Congress during the War of 1812.) French wine and love of roses took their toll on the retired president, who claimed to be an “old man but a young gardener,” eager to learn to the very end. I’ve spent enough time lingering on the elevated grounds there to channel Old Tom’s passion for his house and garden. But as the estate he dearly loved passed through other hands, Monticello nearly became a ruin following Jefferson’s death in 1826.
With all the restoration fever going on around my neighborhood, I perceive a much kinder fate for Mama Squirrel’s house, though who can say what unfolding years may bring. That’s part of the mystery and charm of owning and loving a house with history, former lives, a soul of its own. Speaking of souls, perhaps the right one will even eventually turn up in the nick of time to save the decaying cottage around the corner. What a fairytale ending that would be.
For the record, watching my own boyhood house transform just 100 feet away with far more curiosity than grief, I’ve never felt more at home than in Mama Squirrel’s bungalow. It’s almost like the house chose us to carry on, with or without the pink carpet and Otto Zenke wallpaper.