Thursday, May 14, 2009

Reflections on the life of a house


For the first time in recent memory, no major chores await my attention, though there are always the minor ones. I've been enjoying the small luxury of taking a few pictures and dawdling among friends in Facebook as I reflected on the end of our tenure of this house. The picture above is the last one I'll take of the huge peony at the end of the driveway and of the irises that march along behind it. The irises are heirlooms, offspring of plants that graced the house I grew up in, my mother's pride. We are taking with us corms of every color, plus a piece of the peony's root, so that they will eventually live on with us at our new home.

My thoughts strayed to the very first thing we did for this house, even before we took possession of it. It was to dig a small garden, a narrow bed along the side of the garage. It was never much of a success because it got no sun (therefore no picture here--nothing much to look at), but it was a harbinger of future projects. After we moved in, we dug a huge garden behind the garage, the one that eventually became so overshaded as neighbors' trees matured that the only thing to do, last year, was to put the grass back.

The house when we bought it was a study in lushness done on the cheap, features we would not have included had we the choice. There was a beautiful, huge, and therefore aged, willow tree dominating the back yard. We enjoyed it for a few years until it collapsed upon itself, as willows will, and had to be removed. The main ornamental now in the back is a silver maple. It shades the deck and during the summer months is a faithful and shapely shade tree. But silver maples are the gift that never ends. There is constant cleanup after them, from their "helicopter" seeds that fall in their millions every spring, creating a potential maple forest if the resulting seedlings aren't removed, to their dead leaves in the fall, which leave this pale without the slightest last hurrah of color with which other maples so joyfully exit the season. The street was originally bordered with silver maples and I can only imagine the mess that was created every change of season. When we moved here there was one on the curb in front of our house. Very early on, the county told us the tree was on its way out and, since it was on the county right-of-way, they would remove it for us and replace it with another tree further back on the property, all for free. This created the opportunity for us to build a terraced garden along the curb, with azaleas on the top level and varying colorful annuals on the lower. We still have that garden and it dazzles. The new tree that the county gave us was the 1990s version of the silver maple: a Bradford pear. It turned out to be another ill-conceived urban design fad. One Bradford pear is lovely. Its disciplined, "lollipop" shape, blanketed in the spring with fragrant white blossoms, is pleasant. A group of Bradford pears, however, is the definition of Stepford gardening, a procession of uniform white lollipops stretching as far as the eye can see. And the tree grows fast, so fast that it can't support its own weight. Whole trunks will split from the parent in a big wind. We know, because when we drove back from dinner on my 50th birthday on a blustery November night in 1995, what greeted us was the sight of half of our county-gifted Bradford pear lying across the driveway. Soon it was gone altogether.

This house has been our "child." Other couples without children spend their extra money on travel, restaurants or the theater; with no discussion, indeed having given it no thought whatsoever, we concentrated on our home. We started by installing a fireplace, and then we dug the underground wine cellar off the basement. In 1989 the real fun began, the defining project: a two-storey addition to the back of the house which created a brand-new kitchen downstairs and an expansion of the bathroom upstairs. This led to major re-alignment and re-design of the entire house: the flow through it changed, interior vistas were created. And it wasn't just the inside that got our attention. We stripped the exterior sheathing down to the original 1930s, unmilled 2 x 4s, put in insulation, new windows, and new siding. Then we knocked the concrete stoop off the front of the house and built the "painted lady" porch. Finally, we knocked down the wall between the living room and the den, creating one spacious room in which the fireplace could be enjoyed from any vantage point. That last project was finished in 1999. Since then, we've simply enjoyed the place and kept it up. We've learned many lessons along the way and have created a reflection of who we are. And Steve did it all. The only job that was contracted out was the first, the fireplace. That experience was so unsatisfactory we decided we'd never repeat it. We got all the building permits ourselves, Steve learned as we went along, and passed all inspections, usually with compliments from the county inspectors who weren't accustomed to seeing such good work.

I cannot imagine what my life would have been like without Steve. I'm like most people, lucky to know how to screw in a light bulb. With his creativity and enormous energy, he decorated my life in ways I'd never imagined possible. It's a reality I never forget and for which I am always grateful.

When the time came to put our house on the market, its opening took on the importance to us of a daughter's debutante cotillion. Turning her over to new caretakers is like giving her away in marriage. The woman who is buying this house had been searching for 2 1/2 years, and this was the one for her. We are honored to be the end of such a thorough quest. Soon, it will be her house, no longer ours. Just as what we created is a reflection of who we are, she will make it a reflection of who she is. But the bones will always be ours. Our handprints are in the concrete foundation; our initials are hidden secretly in the mosaic tile on the shower floor. Our creation will live on, giving joy to a new generation, and knowing this makes "farewell" a little easier to say.

11 comments:

michele said...

It's a bittersweet time leaving a beloved house for a new adventure. We still think frequently and fondly on "our" house and gardens in Oxford, NY. We wish we could have moved the house to Cincinnati. Of course, we could not have moved the rural night sky that still has stars, the cows that escaped from nearby pastures to munch at our birdfeeder or the smell of manure being spread in the neighboring hay fields. We do have the wonderful pictures Steve took of the house and gardens, a now six-feet tall blue spruce (offspring of the ancient one in our Oxford backyard) and many plants from that garden. The house is in good hands, though. The folks that bought it from us are still there ten years on, are gardeners and have expanded the gardens (we have been back in the area and, of course, drove by). When we sold the house we left a binder of stuff about it. Must have been one thing we didn't mention, because last year we got a call asking us where the wellhead was. I closed my eyes, transported myself back and was able to tell her it's location. The Arlington house will only be a memory away and it sounds like you have found worthy caretakers.

Zoey and Me said...

I remember Harpo Marx playing that song too. I'm curious as to why neither of us can find it. I checked my playlist and came up with nada. uummmph. Gotta be somewhere.

Sounds like you have emotional ties to the house Ralph. Even going so far as to leave your initials in the flooring. I think you should stay. I really hate to see a grown man cry come June 19th. Well . . . at least I won't have to watch. But hey, maybe it won't appraise and you can stay. Let's think positive!

Ralph said...

Michele, I'm with you and the memories. The house has served it's purpose, and despite the fact we pay for things, we don't really "own" them. The house was 43 years old when we took it over. We gave it a second life, and now new people will carry on. That's as it should be.

Ralph said...

Z&M, you're a regular riot! See my note to Michele above....

michele said...

We are just interim caretakers of our houses. The Oxford house was about 150 years old when we bought it 30 years ago. Before us there was a first house and a major addition (to most eyes well-integrated structures). However, on the foundation seen as one descended the stairs to the basement under the major addition, there were signatures of, we assume, the builders of the major addition. We all want to leave our mark.

Ralph said...

I remember very well where the addition was, Michele, because you pointed it out. If I hadn't known the details, I would have just thought the floors were uneven in an old house.

Very cool about the signatures! The only way anybody will see our handprints (and the prints of the two cats living with us at the time)is if the kitchen addition is for some reason taken apart.

Ralph said...

Z&M, I forgot you also remembered "Take Me Out To The Ball Game." I've always laid it lack of availability to some deal with whatever Desilu Studios is part of now--proprietary in some way. Whatever the reason, it's a shame it can only be heard on "Lucy" re-runs

LONELY RIVERS said...

"......he decorated my life in ways I'd never imagined possible"
Beautiful!

Ralph said...

Thank you, my dear LR.

auntympaugh said...

What a beautiful tribute, not only to this magnificent house, but also to Steve...all of it absolutely true! And now, there are new memories to be made - a new "child" and many more projects for Steve!!
Hugs, Marilyn

Ralph said...

Marilyn, thanks for stopping by! Please don't mind my comments about the Bradford pear. I know your version is the new and improved one!