“Value is so relative,” remarks the real estate agent who is sitting across the table from my husband, as she flips through pages of local house sale data. At the moment, there are reasons to sell, and reasons to stay. We’re pulled back and forth emotionally.
Just like the table, the house we’re considering leaving is old and cracked in secret places, bought for a song eight years ago from an elderly couple. Back then it was just a charming building with a lot of potential, a bit musty, decorated with life-sized 30 year old silk plants, and over-packed with antiques. The walls told a story then, as they do now, except the chapter is new. Over the course of eight years, we have breathed new life into its hand-carved rafters through hard work, and new episodes of our life together have unfolded under its roof. We’ve filled the rooms with the fresh energy of little children and family traditions. In the second floor hallway I’ve hung a famous print called Photo Synthesis by Jerry Uelsmann. It’s a picture of a dilapidated building with giant tree roots. In a sense, that represents my house, but not visually, (thank goodness). I think my family has strengthened these old roots.
We fall in love with this small Queen Anne Victorian, despite the fact that it stands adjacent to a 200 year old cemetery and when we move in as newlyweds, the walls are padded. Every space, except for the bathrooms, is covered in fabric stapled over snow-white batting. Our friends joke that we can film a Brady Bunch reunion movie in the kitchen, because it is ugly, orange vintage. Either that or we can open a retro-style insane asylum, I think, pressing on the cushioned walls. Pulling down a nasty asbestos drop ceiling in the dining room, remnants of cloth electric wires, packs of Lucky Strike cigarettes, horse hair, plaster chunks, and a solitary silver spoon rain down on my head. I pick the spoon up off the heap of garbage. To my treasure-finding delight, it's engraved. On it is written, “Mental Diseases.” I cringe, as if the padded walls and dead neighbors weren’t creepy enough.
Lying in bed a few nights later, I’m staring at the ceiling, an ancient gathering of elaborate yellowed silk folds tucked under a medallion, and crystal chandelier. “The bedroom is my little jewel box,” the previous owner told me at the closing. I’m having involuntary visions of geriatric love under that dangling light fixture, and I can’t sleep. Finally drifting off, I dream that the ceiling, in its dusty decay, is actually the inside of a coffin. Disturbed by this nightmare, I start frantically peeling down the fabric everywhere; I need to find the bare bones of the original building. This 2 a.m. whim marks the beginning of the transformation of this building into my home. It starts a new chapter in the life of this house, which began with a simple farmer named Lyman in 1901, and continues with me and my family. Stairs are stripped of paint, walls repaired and repainted, floors redone. Scrubbed clean and refreshed by years of hard work, the stagnant old house is ready to grow again. Three children give it new wear and tear, and a reason to create more space.
My life has changed over the past eight years, and the transformation of this house into our beloved home reflects that growth. Now it’s my old friend. I’ve dug into its past and I’ve grown to love it at present. We’re sitting at the dining room table considering leaving my old friend at one of the worst economic times possible. “The reality is, in this market, you will not get what your house is worth,” says the real estate agent. I agree. We turned this space into a home filled with our love and memories. That’s priceless.