Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Restoration Life

After my recent visit home, many people have asked about living in an old house.  Here is my article published in FOLK Magazine's Summer 2013 issue.  Because the issue was only digitally released, it missed many of my usual readers. So here it is in its entirety. 

 A Restoration Life

The gem of New England architecture is undoubtedly the iconic colonial home.  Stark lined salt box houses wrapped in primitive color clapboards. Stoic and serene, their simplicity speaks to their origins in an austere new world. New Englanders and visitors alike marvel at these beauties, sometimes voicing how cool it would be to buy one for themselves. But ask anyone who owns such a beast and has attempted a quick fix-up project and they will tell you there is nothing simple about these homes.  Ask the maniacs who devote their lives to restoring these confounded structures, and they will weave a tale like that of an early whaling expedition. (Using my best sea captain voice…) The waters were rough, often unfriendly. Many a foe were encountered.  At times it seemed all would have to abandon ship, but in the end the whale succumbed to the will of man. Reluctantly.
My parents were two such restoration maniacs.  They possessed the Yankee ingenuity, the iron wills and perseverance necessary to spend fifteen years restoring their 1759 Connecticut colonial.  My brother and I would be the unwilling deckhands in their quest for historical accuracy.  Weekends were not meant for relaxing when I was a kid.  My friends knew not to call or knock for fear they too would be drafted into service.  On any given morning, I could wake to the sound of a buzzing table saw sometime before sunrise.  The battle cry of the “Great Restoration” declaring another Saturday would be spent holding up sheet rock, hauling debris, and sweeping up dust held captive for centuries.  This scourge for preservation would last throughout my childhood.  It was a war my parents appeared to enjoy, much to my dismay. Though I didn’t know it at the time, the days working with my parents would build a strong foundation for my future.
When I was in elementary school I regarded my home like a dangerous lair with wide planked floors, low plaster ceilings, and skinny staircases leading into dark crevices.  Any visitors taller than six feet left with a cramped neck and a bruised forehead from a low flying beam.  One bedroom’s floors sloped so badly my brother and I could roll from one side of the room down to the other.  At times we had to watch our feet as we navigated repairs between the bedroom floor and dining room ceiling.  Complaining was not allowed.  If we fell through, it was because we weren’t watching our step. There were no hallways.  Each room connected to the next and the only bathroom was the very last room on the second floor.  Anyone needing to use the toilet, had to go through my room to get there. Privacy was often a luxury surrendered when one wishes to live authentically in a colonial house. Our home was in a constant state of architectural chaos as one by one, each flaw was corrected.

Cerberus, as I affectionately referred to my childhood home, was also pure magic.  For every wall that came down, or floorboard pulled up, treasure waited to be found.  Colonial coins, papers, signatures on wooden beams spelled out the mystery of the home’s earliest residents.  Digging foundation supports or gardens yielded thick old glass bottles, clay tobacco pipes, flatware and discarded pottery.  Part of our backyard was an 18th century dumping ground.  As a child, summer hours were whittled away under the oaks, trolling away layers of dirt on archaeological digs.  Using giant old antique encyclopedias, my parents and I would research china patterns and coins to identify my finds.  It was like growing up in a museum.  Every day was an opportunity to learn from an artist, an expert in hands-on history.
My father hand-planed fireplace panels, plastered walls, wood shingled the roof, re-wired, re-plumbed, and restored original floorboards.  Wooden planks too far gone were re-purposed into period furniture and trinket boxes which remain in the home today. Only when the chimney needed to be replaced were outside professionals brought in.  Otherwise the entire home was meticulously restored by my family.  
My mother weaved her own baskets, participated in a quilting circle, dipped her own candles and strung miles of greens into wreathes and garlands for holiday celebrations.  I remember years of watching her hands work small tools around a white painted banister until the original finish was revealed- a deep maple syrup brown flecked with age, smooth from centuries of hands securing their steps down the narrow stairs.  These same steps would carry me through seventeen years until I was ready to leave for college. 
My life would take me far from my beloved home, but I am lucky that my parents still live there.  I can go home and see their years of hard work still standing strong.  Somehow I also still here that distant whirr of a table saw! The lessons I learned in the restoration years have become my own guiding principles.  The beauty is in the details.  Never do shoddy work thinking no one will notice.  Every small stitch is vital, every hand forged latch necessary.  Never turn away from your heart’s desire, no matter how daunting the road to attainment. Never quit what you have started.  Know it is okay to ask for help. Most importantly, never underestimate the power of teamwork.  With the right people by your side, even the mightiest of whales can be captured.
To read the original article and see more from FOLK Magazine click on the link below.

1 comment:

  1. Such a powerful piece of writing to remind us all how special we Connecticut Yankees really are. I feel reminded and encouraged.