Op-ed column: An old house yields its history slowly, and its rewards at a price

Memorial Day weekend 1969, we bought an old house in the country. It was a very old house in a very

Memorial Day weekend 1969, we bought an old house in the country. It was a very old house in a very old village. The house was built in 1823 with 12-foot barrel ceilings, 12-paned windows and crown moldings. We also acquired crumbling plaster, water stains, holes in the foundation, mice in the walls, coons tipping the garbage and a cellar floor deep in mud.

The kitchen had a lone sink and a wood stove. The bath was similarly Spartan. Electricity was mostly confined to ceiling outlets. But there were 10 rooms, and we had three children, growing at the speed of sound.

A little extra

There was space, which we needed, and there was history, bygone grace, and country charm, which we didn’t especially need. But we’d looked a long, hard time and fallen in love. It was to be an expensive affair, filled with muttering and exasperation, but we didn’t know that then. We needed a house big enough for five people and a large dog. The house offered us the space; its history and idiosyncrasies were an extra.

Papering, painting, propping ceilings, patching gaping holes in ancient plaster that first summer, with our sweat falling onto the sheetrock, was a unique experience — as was the discovery of starlings very much at home in the bedroom wall, the bat who found its way into our living room, and the field rats in the pantry, where we’d blithely put the 50-pound bag of dog kibble. The natural world used us for sport. But that was child’s pastime compared with the inroads of tax assessors, plumbers, electricians, building inspectors, paint, paper and hardware stores.

Kids disenchanted

The love affair did not extend, I’m afraid, to our children. Transplanted from a city with buses and sidewalks, art galleries, museums and a zoo, they were disconsolate. Embarrassed to paste wallpaper on a makeshift table placed on the veranda, an idle curiosity for passing neighbors, they hated the gritty, ancient plaster dust in their teeth as they helped prop a section of sheet rock. Washing in cold water, discovering green chicken in the makeshift refrigerator, forced into child labor, they mourned the distance between them and the civilized world.

The children grew and left us. The large dog left us too. My husband and I remain, love-struck and grumbling, for old houses absorb money. We grumble that we’re tired of ice, cold and snow. We hate the drive to the city when the roads are bad. In winter, nobody wants to visit, but on clear nights the moon and stars are so near. The hills in autumn are so beautiful. Jays squawk. Crows call. Sometimes an eagle loops above, riding the air. The wind rattles the trees. The old house answers with creaks of her own.

Legacy of lives

In that dining room with the only closet, there’s a window with Cyrus Frisbee’s name and the date, April 29th, 1848, scratched on the glass — most likely during Sunday school. This house was a store; it was the Presbyterian Meeting House; it belonged to the local mill owners, before they made their fortune. It belonged to Joe Leggett, who kept chickens and grew potatoes, and died holed up in two of his 10 rooms to keep warm.

Along with cracked plaster and sagging ceilings, outworn plumbing and wiring, various animals sheltering in the cold sheds and between the walls, we bought history. We bought generations passing hand-to-hand in continuity.

But most of all, in the face of the hard lives lived here before us, we bought humility.

Barbara DeMille lives in Rensselaerville. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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