When I was a teenager my mom bought a one-hundred-year-old house on four acres on a winding, narrow road in Shelby county, Kentucky. I don’t remember much about what the house looked like before my mom worked her decorating magic, except that it was in bad shape. I had the vague sense of a house that was decaying, not quite as bad as the barn that was falling down in the back of the house, but badly enough.
My mom has loved old things for as long as I can remember. She’s renovated furniture (including a murphy bed and a super uncomfortable couch), she’s picked up knick-knacks and fripperies here and there—old hats with netting, a toy horse pulling a cart, and stoneware, among others. In her study she has a collection of Native American artifacts (we believe) which were discovered in a field behind her parents' house.
And she’s completely renovated an entire house, turning it from something that had the air of abandonment to something that was warm, stately, and inviting, a place that I loved and that I find myself mentally returning to again and again.
I would buy that house and that land in about half a minute.
I remember lying in my bed on weekend mornings underneath the quilt, seeing the pear-colored light decorate my Prussian blue walls in stripes and hearing something scurry behind the walls or in the eaves. I wasn’t afraid of the sound. It was an old house after all.
I remember the twin staircases that led upstairs to mine and my sister’s rooms, and how my mom used to put all of the things that I left strewn around the downstairs on the foot of my steps. I was supposed to take them up right away but I usually just stepped around them, walking carefully so that I didn’t slip on my clothes.
I remember how my siblings and I traded bedrooms like they were Pogs, moving from room to room holding stacks of our belongings and settling into each new space with the skill of seasoned travellers. The add-on bedroom that was always slightly colder and had the walk-in closet where I used to sneak and read my mom’s romance novels. The pink bedroom where my sister mostly lived, where my siblings and I occasionally did our concerts. The middle upstairs bedroom, where I lived only briefly and dramatically insisted that I got locked into on one occasion even though no one believed me (largely because we all knew I could have really gotten out if I had wanted). And the Prussian blue bedroom where I lived the most, with my blue recliner and my wicker bookshelf, my numerous pieces of Elvis wall décor, and my boom-box where I loved playing my sister’s Pink CD at full blast.
That was our house, but it had belonged to others, too.
I remember my mom finding the antique cigarette cards with scantily-dressed women (I think one was on a swing) behind the mantle. A very old receipt which established that the house had been built by the late nineteenth century. The muddy brown medicine bottle, which must have been so commonplace at its time of use and probably wouldn’t have captured most people’s attention now, but which I saw as something special.
The detritus of an older time, thrown aside and forgotten or ignored—like the clothes I left on my stairwell—but found and appreciated by someone—my mom, and also myself—who saw in them something to appreciate.
What my mom discovered in the walls, and the life we lived there in that floor-squeaking, drafty, high-ceilinged, double-staircased house, has informed so much of what I look for in a home.
It was the reason why I encouraged Daniel, my husband, to forget about buying a fifty-year-old white ranch with brick accents in favor of a nearly one-hundred-year-old brick foreclosed house in Lenoir City, Tennessee.
I’m all about character. I would rather take a house that is covered in paneling and musty carpet in hideous, sickly shades of green, that has track lights running up the staircase, wobbling railings, and a room which had walls painted in a manner that I could only call “serial killer chic,” over what I saw as a generic ranch any day of the week.
And of course I’m incredibly lucky because Daniel is the handiest person I know. I helped him demolish this house and carry out the rubble, and I did most of the painting, but he did EVERYTHING else. He’s also a home visionary, and even if he was not incredibly enthusiastic about my choice, he saw something in this house too.
So we got our approximately 2600 square foot house for approximately $86,000. On the day of our final walk-through, I inspected the kitchen and took in the green faux marble counter-top, the heavy knotted pine, the holes where the appliances should be, the vinyl floors, and I had my first moment of doubt. What had I signed us up for?
But then we started working. We ripped down the walls and ceilings with crow bars and sledge hammers. We pulled up the floors, hoping for original hardwood masterpieces and finding in many cases layers of black underlayment and glue.
We took the house down to the studs, carting out wheelbarrows full of drywall and plaster and lathe, tossing the contents over the side of the porch railing into the revolving stream of dumpsters we had in our backyard. Then we walked through our empty house, seeing only the wooden joists, and thought, progress.
Along the way we found the detritus of other lifetimes: an old black shoe, which I thought about keeping before reminding myself that it was only one shoe, and not a very cute one at that. Old handwritten letters and Christmas cards from the fifties. Beautiful magazines from the 1920s which an enterprising resident had used to insulate the kitchen. Bags of newspaper clippings which I also removed from the walls. Two pieces of sheet music, which were patriotic ditties from WWII. Photo negatives, which I took to a local specialty shop and had developed. One, a woman standing in front of a car which was parked in front of the ocean. One, an incredibly young looking man who was dressed in a soldier’s uniform. A child’s journal from the 1990s, which I read guiltily before throwing away, unfinished. A long cane pole which my husband threw away for me because he said it was just a stick. Fragments of old records which I found in the crawl-space, half-buried under the dirt.
And most surprising of all, a human skull which had been forgotten—or perhaps hidden in an attic space upstairs—and which came tumbling out of the ceiling like a scene out of a horror film. Individuals’ names were engraved on the back, as was the name “U.S. Army Signal Corps.” We called the Lenoir City Police Department and they came to the scene to retrieve it, as stunned as we were to be carrying a human skull out of our front door in one of my gallon Ziplock bags.
Ripping down the walls allowed us to see where the original clapboard exterior walls were and how they had become interior walls in places due to the previous owner’s renovations. We could see the evidence that other people had lived there, that they had collected things and had people who wrote to them and magazines they subscribed to. That they went to war and brought terrible things home and then left them here, for us to find all these years later. That they had children who had interior lives and things that they felt were important enough to make record of.
I don’t know where those people ended up, what other houses they made their own, but I love that I’ve seen a little of their lives, and that our family is one of many that has called this house home.
About the Author
When my toddler and infant sleep--or are otherwise engaged--I write, read, and eat lots of chocolate.