Mary's Farm: New House from Old
A recent cartoon in the New Yorker depicts two older couples sitting amidst the construction debris of the interior of a house. The host says, “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 sledgehammers, the doors lifted off their hinges, the windows crowbarred out, and the thresholds pried up and away. 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 a tumultuous relationship with an old house, 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. Houses such as this are now referred to as “teardowns.” That is a chilling word to me. 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 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.
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.
A collection of these essays is available at edieclark.com.