When I was a girl my friends and I used to scour the woods near my house for wooden stakes with plastic neon ribbon on them because we knew that some day in the near future a flotilla of big machines was coming to tear the trees out of the ground and raze the ferns and the huckleberry bushes. Eventually, despite our efforts, it happened. The damp, shady pond under the vine maple grove was spared as a “wetland”, encased in a chain-link cage in the middle of a soulless subdivision, but everything else was buried under cement. We had moved away by this time, but on a few occasions I drove back to my old neighborhood to throw rocks and sticks at the bulldozers parked on my woods. Now I don’t go near there.
My woods were ripped down for a bunch of hastily built “dream homes” squashed close together with their chilly vaulted ceilings and echoing open floor plans. When Huzzybee and I decided it was time to find a house to live in, we knew immediately that we wanted to live in something old, comfortable, and strange. Thank God we met Mrs. Miller. She is not and old woman, or a young woman, or a grande damme, she is our house, and she is a little batty. The first time we stepped inside her creaky grandeur we knew this was the place. I was technically on bed rest and not supposed to be looking at houses, so I clung to Huzzybee’s arm during the house showing, dug my claws into his skin and hissed “this one!”
Mrs. Miller was built in 1928, so the records say, but actually she could be much older. She’s 1100 square feet of strange wooden walls, wooden ceiling, spooky attic, unnerving basement, and mysterious artifacts. She has given us nothing but trouble since we moved in – we’ve already had to repair the furnace, do a sewer pipe overhaul, fix the fireplace, and the gutters, but we love every creaky old inch of her. When my father-in-law suggests that we tear her down and put two new homes on top of her we defend her like insulted medieval knights arguing abou their fair lady’s honor. When our friends look at our wooden walls and ceiling and blithely say “I could never live with this” we point out her lovely, sunny windows and beg them to just get to know her for her personality. When they remark that 1100 square feet is just too small we feel embarrassed because to us (we used to live in a 690 square foot condo) she feels like a palace.
Two days ago, while I was working in my garden, a car screeched up to me and a woman of about 65 poked her head out the driver’s window. “I used to spend my summers at this house” she bellowed, “my aunt lived here!” Three minutes later she was inside, wandering the halls and telling me stories of weekends spent making cherry pies, sleeping on an old iron bed in the attic, and walking to the nearby beach in the summer time. This never happens in a cookie-cutter subdivision.
All around us in our neighborhood little old ladies like Mrs. Miller are being demolished, along with their apple orchards and old roses. New and giant houses are built out to all four property lines so that no more yard exists, save for a slash of beauty bark and some low-maintenance, standard-issue evergreen shrubs. Right now, in late spring it is house shopping season and I dearly hope that potential buyers will choose to live in an older home. Retrofitting an older home can be far greener than building a brand new one. Yes they are smaller, but Huzzybee and I love living in smaller quarters – it has helped us learn to cooperate with each other, compromise, and be creative about how we use space (plus we can’t own much stuff if there is no place to put it).
Right now the radio is playing Glenn Miller band in my old, dishwasher-less, microwave-less, garbage disposal-less kitchen and Mrs. Miller is feeling content and nostalgic, and I am feeling grateful that we were entrusted with her care.