Many years ago, when we made the decision to move to our town for the fine school system, I was heavily pregnant with twins and anxious to get settled. We already had two children, and anticipated more, so we were in search of lots of space. We bought, despite our misgivings about the work it would entail, and despite the lukewarm attitude of the dependable real estate agent we had trusted through previous sales and purchases, a huge rambling house built in 1783.
The previous owner’s assessment of its condition was at best optimistic, though I tend to use the word “delusional” in my less diplomatic moments, and the inspection revealed only certain issues to be dealt with. Thus began a love-hate relationship with what we came to refer to as our own version of the Money Pit. Like the movie by that name, we were unpleasantly surprised by weak trees, collapsing staircases and wildlife in the walls.
The entire northeast corner of the house had to be gutted and rebuilt when we discovered sills rotting so badly they were growing several species of mushroom. During the process, one of the staircases down to the basement collapsed. In searching for the outcome of the other one, we discovered it ended up in a boarded up trap door in a closet on the other side of the house, and we speculated that that’s how people were hidden in the Freedom Train, as it led to the coal bins, a walled up section of the basement that wasn’t visible from the main area.
Standing at the kitchen sink one day washing dishes, the overhead light began to leak water. Not just drip, drip, drip, but gushing water in a really obvious bid for attention. I managed not to electrocute myself, and it turned out the bathroom directly overhead had a rotted drain.
Cleaning up the fireplace grate in the kitchen one day, happily anticipating cheerful fires in the hearth during the winter, I heard rustling overhead and discovered previous tenants had not in fact moved out. Bright dark eyes peered down at me, to my delight. Several thousand dollars later, and scaffolding up the side of the house, we had a new six-foot blue slate cap put on the chimney, and relocated raccoons. I really wanted to keep them, but had to concede to safety concerns for the children, who weren’t afraid of animals but instead had a tendency to want to bring upstairs anything furry to sleep with. We let the family of field mice stay, figuring they would not bother us in the main house with the sheer number of cats out and about. Indeed, they ended up being very polite little tenants and only occasionally peeked out to say hello.
A family of skunks lived under a huge rock near the garage, and would take occasional forays out to the back yard. One of them, whom we named Popcorn because of his habit of jumping up when he was happy, liked to play with our cats. One night, John called in the cats from the back for dinner. They would come running when they heard the sound of a can opener, and John would do a silent headcount of which ones were coming in. That particular night he did the headcount as usual, and then paused when he saw Popcorn. “Wait a minute…” he said, “You’re not enough like a cat.” Popcorn still tried to nudge his way in, but we had to draw the line at him coming inside.
Redecorating the twins’ bedroom, which entailed peeling old wallpaper off the walls, we discovered that the wallpaper was in fact the only thing holding the horsehair plaster walls together. We ended up painting, and their walls, like elsewhere in the house, were endearingly lumpy. As they got older, I painted small murals on the walls of a mermaid, and two lobsters, a blue one named Lefty and a red one named Louis. They had big eyes like Marty Feldman and cheesy handlebar moustaches and I told the boys that they were originally from Louisiana before they traveled to their walls, and probably spoke a mixture of French and English.
The Pit stood up on the slope of a hill, painted a cheerful yellow. Throughout, there was not a single plumb angle or straight edge. Everything was warped with age, including doorways, walls, and ceilings. The house had locked secret cabinets that probably once held bibles and guns, and passageways that once held fleeing slaves. Rooms were built off rooms in a seemingly endless rabbit warren that confused visitors and delighted children. The basement still had its original coal pits and spiders the size of small rodents. And it has become part of our family’s history that we all felt sure that the west wing, added in 1850, housed a benevolent spirit who occasionally played with the lights.
It was in this house that we began raising five young children, and which was also home at various times to eight cats, three ferrets, two bunnies, two guinea pigs, a gerbil, a dwarf hamster, a teddy bear hamster, two chinchillas, a hedgehog and two hermit crabs. I stopped keeping count of the goldfish, as they came and went in games of Goldfish Survivor. My son Ian was fond of trying out different foods in their tank, convinced that their flakes must get boring. His food of choice was Cheetos, and the fish seemed interested in them when they floated on the top of the water, but sometimes didn’t survive the diet change.
When one walked into the house through the back door (as the front inevitably stuck and was rarely used), one walked into noise and bright colors and utter chaos. Artwork by small children graced the refrigerator, and the back door was an inevitable tangle of kicked off shoes and butterfly nets and plastic swords. On a good day, there would only be the aroma of clean hay in the rabbit hutch and the scent of a butter cream candle on the stove. Sometimes it smelled like little boys and sneakers, and perhaps a couple of cats who hadn’t made it to the bathroom in time. The kitchen looked a little bit like a funky preschool, with the alphabet around the top of the walls.
I once visited the home of a friend, and marveled at its serenity. No children and no animals. Endless expanses of white carpeting and upholstery. A strong sea theme throughout, with gracefully curving shells and driftwood, gives one the sense of walking into a seaside sanctuary, an oasis of calm. I cannot imagine a more antithetical space to my own home! But while I enjoyed it for the hour or so that I was there, I found myself delighting in walking back into my over-the-top house. It must say a lot about our personalities, my friend who serenely keeps things at a minimum, and the people like me who never met a wall space that couldn’t be filled up with something whimsical or another corner of the house that couldn’t just fit perfectly one more cage. My current house has been described as looking like kittens threw up skittles on the walls. It’s true. It does.