20 January 2011

Post 299: Marybeth Cieplinski (guest blogger)

At Home: A Short History of Private Life.  ISBN: 9780767919388 (ARC - published October 5, 2010).

I always wanted to own an old house, even after seeing all the work my dad put into their last one here. It was fun putting up wallpaper, painting, fixing broken pipes. Even bailing icy snow-melt from the basement has charm when you're not the one footing the bill and dealing with the damage. I really should have listened to that old saying -- be careful what you wish for.

The house we bought in 1991 was probably built in the 1880s. According to an elderly neighbor, who was born next door, various parts of the house were built with stolen wood from the lumber yard that was across the street. Having gotten a glimpse inside the walls, I wouldn't bet against it. We live in what is often called a "shotgun house" because a gunman would have a straight line of sight from the back door to the front of the house. The kitchen is the oldest part of the house, with handmade bead-board cabinets that are very similar to the ones in my parents' last house. Those cabinets only fit into one place in the kitchen, obviously built for that spot, so when ductwork was added to send heat upstairs, the cabinets ended up on the enclosed back porch/laundry room, where they reside at this moment. My Dad just happened to be visiting from Florida while we were in the process of getting a loan, so we took him on a tour of our potential new home. While I was enthralled by the paneled crook at the side of the stairs – images of a twinkling Christmas tree there danced through my head – I think Dad was simply appalled. I'm sure he could see the amount of work needed to make it livable, and keep it that way. The stair landing felt spongy when we stepped on it. Termites: in the landing, the two-story wall next to it, and the window that got stranded in mid-wall when the attic floor was knocked out to put in a staircase for bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. Heat was provided by a massive, cast iron gas furnace that had been converted from coal use. The gravity-feed heat system wasted an appalling amount of our money without giving much in the way of warmth, especially to the second floor. The downstairs room off the dining area we euphemistically called the "sewing room" although it was supposed to be a bedroom. Even twenty years ago, the sizing paper over the plaster walls and ceiling was peeling. It hasn't gotten any better and parts of the ceiling came down a few years ago. We screwed drywall scraps over the exposed lath and crossed our fingers that it wouldn't spread. The idea of using it as a full-time bedroom is currently out of the question. In retrospect, we should have sold the house when the kitchen ceiling fell down.

I fell in love with the size of the kitchen. Almost fifteen feet square, there was plenty of room to cook, which we often did as a family. The dining table was situated between the sink and a hutch used for storage. We replaced the pale green 1930s gas stove and refrigerator with modern versions, but the plug for the fridge was inconveniently located on the opposite side of the room, making a too-large work triangle. Odds and ends of furniture (rearranged frequently) held the microwave, pots, and non-perishable foods. Three doors (including one to the side yard next to the sink) and three windows left little space and made positioning the bits of furniture a challenge, but we managed. I frequently wished we could remodel and make things more convenient but we never talked about it seriously. Until the ceiling fell down. There had always been a wrinkled bit of wallpaper in the corner over the fridge, so when the kids said the ceiling was sagging, I dismissed it. A couple weeks later, it was obvious that they were right. My husband decided to screw some slabs of drywall over the sagging section to keep it in place until we could deal with it. The next day, I removed my collection of Depression glass vases from the top of the fridge and the hutch next to it. After supper, my husband set up a ladder and went to get the drill and some drywall screws. Before he could return, there was a sharp ripping noise, and a third of the plaster on the kitchen ceiling came down on top of the fridge, hutch and ladder. We took it as a sign that we should remodel, but there are times when I think we would have been better off selling.

Ironically, my parents' old house went up for sale two years ago. It seemed like a good omen, even though I knew we probably couldn't afford the more-expensive mortgage. Still, I agonized over the possibilities. A lot. Ultimately, we never were able to connect with the realtor for a visit, so maybe that was a sign too. Sometimes I wish we'd looked into buying that house a little harder. More often I'm glad we didn't. I lived in that house for long enough to know what its issues are and I'm sure they haven't improved over the past thirty years either. Then again, there are times when I think I might have enjoyed finding out.

Marybeth Cieplinski is what colleges euphemistically call a "non-traditional student," meaning she's next to older than dirt and just finished her BA in December.  Her immediate plans are to panic while attempting to finish her grad school admissions portfolio by the Feb 1 deadline.  Future plans are subject to change depending on when she gets out of bed in the morning.  She loves to write about almost anything but doesn't know when to stop.

LibsNote: The guest blogger borrowed the book from me, and I received it from the publisher's booth at ALA 2010.

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