Thursday, December 13, 2007


I am not certain exactly where my love of old houses began, but I think it has something to do with my relatives, Thanksgiving and the company of other children.

I grew up in a very typical suburban neighborhood. It was a nice enough place to spend your early years. Our house was on a cul de sac. The streets had sidewalks. Everyone had a backyard complete with ChemLawn green sod and a front yard finished off with a four foot-tall red maple or two. My one window--which was in a sturdy and efficient aluminum frame--was located perfectly in the center of the wall of my Holly Hobbie bedroom. Our kitchen was shiny and modern, and we had a dishwasher. Every surface in the house screamed suburban happiness.

Of course, the sad end to this tale is that my home was anything but the picture of suburban happiness. My father had an affinity for indulging in after-hours drinking with his buddies, which led inevitably to an affinity for a particular lady who is now my stepmother. My mother, while presenting a face of domestic bliss to friends and family was, I realize now, vacillating between mania and depression for years. While the actual physical structure that was my home is still standing somewhere in Suburbia, USA, the house of cards that was my family trembled and quaked long before it finally came crashing down.

As a small child, I couldn't put a finger on any of this, of course. I knew that being with my parents was a mercurial thing, at best. My dad could scoop me up and treat me to ice cream and hugs on the same day that he berated my mother for hours over a burnt meatloaf. The same mom who snapped the overhead light on in the morning and barked "Get up, dam*it!" as an alarm clock might later on invite me to listen to her read a Laura Ingalls Wilder book while sipping her special orange rind tea. The four walls of my house began to symbolize confusion for me long before I ever heard the words "dysfunctional family."

In my mind, even as a child, I began to contrast this with the experiences I had when visiting with my mother's sisters. Two of my favorites lived just one state south, within a day's drive. I can still remember the sensation of unfolding my six year-old body from the back seat of my mother's Dodge Charger and stepping onto the curb just outside of the house belonging to one of my aunts. As I stretched my legs, I would always look straight down at that curb, which was ridged--not rounded--like the curbs in my neighborhood. Not to mention the fact that in our subdivision, no one parked on the street. Our ample driveways were never so full as to resort to something as common as street parking. From the moment we arrived at this old place, the whole flavor of living was different. More colorful, more alive. You could sense this all from that curb: you were no longer in safe, sanitized suburbia.

My aunt and uncle had five children living in their home at the time of my early childhood Thanksgiving memories. This was always significant to me for many reasons, not the least among them the fact that their front door always seemed to stand at least partially open--presumably because it was constantly in motion admitting a stream of people into their home. I loved walking through that front door. In fact, I can barely picture the exterior of their home, and have only vague memories of their steps or porch. No, the main focus to their house was the inside, and that was always where I wanted to be.

This particular old house had everything that I have come to love about pre-1920s housing: odd nooks built into walls where nothing larger than a vase could fit. Staircases that switched directions almost precariously, without taking into account the needs of either the very old or the very young. Floors that were knicked with age and creaked as you walked. Doors that needed to be lifted slightly as they were fitted into their frames. Leaded glass windows that were far more interesting than what could be seen through the glass. Rooms that were clearly built without any uniformity of size in mind.

The family that turned the glass doorknobs in that house, the family that filled its oddly-shaped dining room to overflowing, was one of the most joyful I can ever remember spending time with. And while I doubt sincerely that it was simply living amidst all of that beauty and curiosity that made them such a jolly, tight-knit group, I knew somewhere in my heart that it certainly couldn't hurt.

This seemed to be confirmed for me when I visited yet another of my mother's sisters. This family should have been the polar opposite of the first. After all, they had only one child. And instead of squeezing into a narrow, cozy Folk Victorian (or at least I remember it as a Folk Victorian), they had room to sprawl in what I recall as more of a Foursquare. Not that I had any idea what a Foursquare was at the time. But I digress.

This family had the same softness to it that I loved to bask in at the other old home. My aunt's kitchen in this house, as I remember it, was a warm place that smelled like clean floors and baked goods. The stairway in that house seemed to go on forever, and always made me wonder whose feet had stuck the planks in the hundred years prior to my own. My cousin and I wandered through that house, exploring tight spaces and cavernous-seeming rooms. It was heaven.

I always returned to my own home and felt every angle of its walls, every cool surface, every new thing that worked perfectly. And I always felt cheated.

And I still feel cheated, truthfully. I have only owned two homes in my 33 years. One was built in 1982. The one we currently own was built just five years ago. When we were still renting, I was an absolute sucker for old homes, and we ended up living in several that still give me a smile to remember. My favorite was the upstairs apartment we rented in a beautiful home that had been built at the end of the 1800s. Though the floors slanted visibly in the kitchen and the place was cold enough to see your own breath in the winter, I didn't care. The kitchen was literally a wall of windows, and the fireplace mantels were gorgeous. A Christmas tree looked like it belonged there, and every meal tasted better in that kitchen.

Dh shares my love of old houses--actually, I suspect that he just indulges me, but that's o.k. We have attempted on two separate occasions to buy historic homes in our area and have been unsuccessful both times. The first one was a Folk Victorian that would have required major renovation that we realized just in time would be too much for our novice skills. The second one was an eclectic Queen Anne in nearly perfect condition, but the estate of the previous owners had no patience for our contingency offer. I've since watched that unique home deteriorate as the new owners have allowed it to fall into disrepair.

I do believe, on some level, that we'll own one of these old gems some day. Until then, I hang stained glass windows in my clearly modern, cookie-cutter tract home and try to give the place some personality with my own idea of warm colors and fabrics and whatnots. I'm the first to admit that the effect is clearly eclectic and probably a major style faux pas. I'll also admit that I really don't care. I like the carved wooden panel that hangs on my living room wall. It's actually a section of an intricate molding panel that came from a Charlotte, NC church, and it makes me happy to see it softening the edges of my unsightly (those clearly useful) sliding glass door.

I do occasionally see--and covet--old homes. It doesn't happen much in person, because the area where I live is sadly deficient in this area. A handful of homes built from 1900-1910 dot the area, and the majority are "remuddled" beyond recognition. But I do haunt internet sites dedicated to Old House Lovers, and they feed both my joy and my desire to call one of those places my home some day.

I guess I will always equate "homey-ness" with the details and elegance of a much-older house. The concept was so burned into my brain through early exposure that I'll probably never shake it. But at least I can admit now that I don't have to have heart pine floors to have a happy family. The floors would be nice, don't get me wrong. But the family, well ... that's even better.


Sarah said...

Beautiful post. I share your love and desire for one of those old Victorian homes. We always said our house will have 2 things: a big front porch and sidewalks. We have neither here, but our house is 50 years old. Still it isn't old enough to have the good Victorian stuff. Someday, perhaps....

Samuel said...

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