Rare and Beautiful Treasures
By Jim Dodson
When you are slowly restoring an old house, as my wife and I have been doing for two years as of this autumn, patience is more than a virtue because you never quite finish some projects before there is another — maybe two or three — waiting to get underway.
During our first summer, we painted the house inside and out, restored two fireplaces, brought a summer porch back to life, replaced a pair of exterior doors, refinished floors, repaired a bit of wiring and transformed a garage guest apartment into a home office that I call my “tree house.”
If that sounds like a lot of work, not to mention money, comparatively speaking it isn’t. Many houses of mid-century vintage require heaps of expensive restoration if not outright reconstruction work before they achieve a level of an owner’s desired livability.
Fortunately, in our case, the lovely family that passed the house on to us are not only old friends (I grew up two doors away and their house was my favorite in the neighborhood) but also a clan of able builders who kept the place in good shape. They updated bathrooms and the kitchen to suit the needs of their aging parents, who were able to live out their days in the house they built as young marrieds.
Knowing this comforts me, for I often feel the loving presence of Mama Merle and Big Al around this place, in its gently creaking floors and deep silences They are reminders of how much we love the house they built as much as they did — or quite likely will before all is said and done.
Though I still occasionally dream about the handsome post-and-beam house we built on a forest hill near the coast of Maine — which I was certain was to be my so-called “Dream House,” a place made by my own hands and where I expected to spend out my own remaining days — I realize now that dreams change as we age, or remember, and simply live day-by-day.
Houses, I’m convinced, possess their own living personalities and souls shaped by the humans who inhabit them for any appreciable period of time, who love, neglect or even abuse them. The word “inhabit,” after all, comes from the ancient root that translates “to give and receive.” Houses and their gardens, I firmly believe, absorb the energy of the people who loved them and once filled their rooms with life, year after year, season upon season. “By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established,” goes a line I fancy from Proverbs. “Through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures.”
You can see this clearly when you drive past a beautiful house that seems to quietly radiate inner peace and happiness. Likewise, every neighborhood has a house or two that seems to cry out for someone, anyone, to simply rescue and love it, a suburban House of Usher where someone’s dream of a home has fallen to tatters.
“We all have some Platonic idea of a house,” notes Thomas Moore, the priest psychologist. “Maybe that’s what we mean when we talk about our ‘Dream House’ — an imagined home that is not just projected into the future but also has a past, as if we’re remembering in a Platonic sense the archetypal home set deep in our hearts the day we were born.”
I wasn’t born when Mama Merle and Big Al built their handsome family bungalow, but I knew from a very early age — and now realize — that it featured into my dreams of home across the several decades that I roamed the world before unexpectedly returning home — only to find my favorite house as a kid suddenly up for sale and available, mysteriously unsold in a neighborhood where most properties don’t even reach the public marketplace. When I asked the sweet real estate agent who walked us through the house on a warm autumn day two years ago this month how on Earth such a wonderful house could remain on the market for two or three months without someone snatching it up, she paused, looked at me and smiled.
“I can’t tell you why. It’s so beautiful, simple, well-built. Houses have lives of their own. The house didn’t want anyone else. This house wanted you guys.”
Her comment gave me a shiver.
Beyond the indoor enhancements, over our first summer in the place I removed Mama Merle’s aged and overgrown shrubs, and completely relandscaped the front and side yards, planting 16 trees and building a perennial walkway filled with lavender, Russian sage, phlox and black-eyed Susans, a somewhat Mediterranean-looking garden that more than holds its own against the brutal summer sun – and periods of drought – as this summer has proved. The crape myrtles, river birches, redbuds, Japanese maples and ornamental grasses that soften the visage of the house are all thriving, I’m happy to report, projecting a true sense of the peace contained therein.
This past spring I turned my attention to a backyard presided over by ancient white oaks and an understory of buckeyes, Carolina silver bells and a sprawling Japanese dogwood that, together, produce almost a natural cathedral effect. It’s the ideal spot for a Japanese garden of hydrangeas, hostas, turkey-foot figs, various kinds of ferns and Lenten roses that made a fine start this summer but should be a true sanctuary from the heat of the day in the years to come.
With the 93 days of one of the hottest summers I can recall finally vanishing down the rabbit hole, it’s nice to see — and feel — autumn rains refreshing my outdoor labors, a sign that I can now move indoors and get back to work on projects still patiently awaiting the return of the staff handyman. Chief among them is a wall of custom-built bookcases I have in mind for a cozy room at the back of the house where Mama Merle loved to sit by the smaller fireplace. The minute I laid eyes on it — or should I say “remembered it” — I knew this room would make a perfect library, overlooking a peaceful garden, a quiet room filled with rare and beautiful treasures.
With hope, by Christmas, it will be just that — if I can somehow manage to finish one major project before I happily begin another.