This Elderly House
Do you now, or have you ever lived in an old house? I don't mean one that was built in your mother's time. I'm talking Turn of the Century-Before-Last--- 1800s. If not, then you have never played the Russian Roulette game of laying in bed in the morning, trying to guess what has gone wrong in your house while you were innocently sleeping through the night. Could be some small fixable thing, or something you've been putting off fixing, or it could just be one of those things that translates to "Hello, Mr Banker, I'm going to need a 2nd mortgage".
Don't misunderstand me--I LOVED my Victorian house--from the very moment we drove into the scattered cinder driveway, and stepped onto the sagging front steps, I knew we were supposed to live there. I didn't even hear the agent say, "I know this isn't what you said you were looking for, BUT...". I did hear my husband, Tom, groan and say "ohhhh noooooo".
Yes, it is true, we were going to be very sensible and buy a small rambler, one of those move-in ready houses--something that wouldn't require a lot of work, and THEN, when one of these big, old, wonderful houses came along, we would have saved up some money, gotten our bearings in a new town--you know---all that well-meaning bla, bla, bla. BUT, here we were---there it was. How could we not??
But Tom, being the sensible one in this twosome, said, "well, okey, I guess we could make them a low-ball offer". He was pretty convinced that the sellers would fall over laughing and shred it to bits. He forgot to take into account that those same sellers had moved to another state, the house had been empty and on the market for seven months--so long that the neighborhood kids wouldn't come near it, because they were sure it was "haunted". That's not even considering that it needed a new roof, the shingles were molting, the furnace was older than either of us, it was still hooked up to a septic system in the middle of the city--and worst of all--75% of all the beautiful quarter-sawn oak woodwork had been painted----- salmon pink. What was he thinking?! OF COURSE they accepted! And so began the Saga of "River's Bend." Yes, the house had a name. On a brass plaque. Next to the front door. The inside of which was painted pink.
We were two adults, one just out of a Dermatology residency, three very small children and a dog--maybe there was a guinea pig. We owned 1 rug, one brown corduroy couch, 4 box springs and mattresses, three dressers, plus a white Formica table and six black vinyl chairs, a sewing machine and 43 boxes of books. And, of course, some Power Rangers, a tricycle and a couple of baby dolls.
And here we were---- moving into an 1895 Queen Anne Victorian house with a front parlor, a library, huge dining room, circular foyer with a grand entrance stairway and a Quezal chandelier, cut-up horrible kitchen, enormous sunroom, five fireplaces, five bedrooms, a back stairway to the maid's quarters and on and on and on. Our six-year-old son said it best. He quickly toured around the house, with the dog right behind him, came to me and said, "Mom, this is half a castle!!." He then climbed to the top of one of the 35 foot tall spruce trees in the front yard and stayed until the U-Haul van left.
One of the first projects was of course, to strip the pink wainscoting, door and window frames, doors and staircase, So, armed with many gallons of stinky Zip-Strip, putty knives, empty milk cartons and much determination, we began the big reveal. Of course, you know that once you start a project like that, there is nowhere to stop.--Like peeling that teeny piece of loose wallpaper off from your living room wall. No going back! In the picture of oldest son being the "Invisible Man" for Halloween, notice the partially stripped salmon pink woodwork behind him. This is 1972, three years after the project started. Over my shoulder, you can also see the red, antiqued window frames--my "I give up, waving a white flag capitulation to the God of pink paint.
But--LOOK HERE!! Beautiful golden "tiger" oak began to appear as the pink paint was banished. WHY would anyone have painted it?? And, they must have been pretty determined, too. Just look at all those spindles and think about painting each one
It took eight--yes, 8--years, before we just couldn't do it anymore. We were starting to break out in hives just watching the Zip Strip ads on television. Our kids were starting to whine about the agility courses--ladders, cans of toxic chemicals and scrapers, screwdrivers and box fans--between their bedrooms and the bathroom. As I said, we gave in and painted the front parlor woodwork a Chinese red and antiqued it--very 1970s. And also, as I've said before, "Done is good." The guy in the period banker's outfit, above, is the same kid as the one in all the "invisible" Ace bandages and paisley ascot.
We were still determined to finish the upstairs, however, and the first coat of stripper uncovered what looked like walnut. Fabulous!! The second coat went on to clean it up and---OOops! We discovered that it had been artistically and carefully false grained by hand--to make soft pine LOOK like walnut--and we accidentally took it right off! Cue several gallons of dark walnut stain!
We lived at River's Bend for 21 years. It was a wonderful place for our kids to grow up. There was an enormous attic on the third floor that, in the 1940s, had been turned into a huge puppet theater. It had an enormous fly space where the puppeteers could perch and dangle their characters in front of the ten foot wooden procenium, telling their stories and entertaining the neighborhood. And, when they were finished, the "woman of the house" painted portraits of their star puppets on the walls up there. They were fascinating, intriguing and downright spooky. It was theeeeee VERY best place in the world to be, especially on a rainy day.
We always thought that there had to be at least one secret room in the house--it was just that kind of a house--and my kids spent a lot of time and thought on that idea. They were sure it had to be under the big boxed-in landing for the grand staircase and that one of the panels in the elaborate woodwork must move.
That kept them busy for quite awhile, and included an exploratory trip behind the built-in oven in the kitchen, before they gave it up. Then, the boys discovered that if they took the ceiling out of the small cupboard beside the fireplace in their little sister's bedroom, they could climb upwards into a space! A SPACE where they found--HIDDEN TREASURE! A cardboard box holding--yes! some comic books, school papers and two empty liquor bottles!! Proof positive that little boys had lived there, before them!
Soooo many times I would look out the kitchen window and see strange people wandering around the back yard. When confronted, they all had the same story--Their uncle Eustace or their grandfather or their cousin Edith used to live in our house and they have such fond memories of coming to visit when they were little--would it be all right------, did I think they could possibly----they came all this way----"oh alllll right, come on in".
They all had interesting stories to tell. One very elderly lady said she used to spend her Summers there, in the 1930s, and why had we closed up the passage doorway between the parlor and the library? Really???We were pretty skeptical about that. If you looked at that wall, it was perfectly smooth, bumped right up against the fireplace--didn't hardly seem enough room for a door. Maybe she was "mis-remembering", poor thing, she WAS pretty old. But, in 1982, when we tore off the sunroom and put the huge kitchen addition on the house, we needed to look at the original blueprints--and there it was!! THE DOOR! Right where she said it was. And no--we didn't re-open it.
I was much younger, then. I hadn't fallen off of any ladders, yet. I was still invincible. I used to climb from the front porch roof to our bedroom window ledges to wash the windows, no fear. As our kids got older, they discovered that they too, could go out their bedroom windows-- quite safely--one had a balcony, one a porch roof and one the flat roof over the sunroom, with the added bonus of an outside door---- a great way to come and go, unbeknownst to their clueless parents, who assumed they were in bed or doing homework. However, one night, oldest son was just swinging down by his fingertips, to land on the cellar door, before hitting the ground and escaping into the neighborhood. As he was dangling in front of the kitchen window, I happened to be sitting in the breakfast alcove, having a nice, late cup of coffee. We looked at each other through the window, for a good ten seconds, then he slowly began to climb back up. Pretty soon I heard his footsteps over my head-STOMP, STOMP, STOMP!!! SLAM!! Busted!
There are so many good stories to tell about River's Bend! Listen, I haven't even mentioned the time I set fire to the front porch while stripping the columns with a heat gun!! Or the time a visiting buddy took the dare from my two boys and made the plunge down the three-story laundry chute, into the waiting heap of dirty clothes at the bottom. I thought an eighteen-wheeler had veered off course and crashed into the back porch, with all the noise. "Hey, you guys, what's going on??!" "Nothing Mom, just playing with our trucks." Riiiiggght. Good thing I hadn't gotten to the laundry yet, that week!!