We moved into this house early in 1987 with three small children. A classic American farmhouse, built in the 1800s, it perches on a knoll overlooking the river, presenting some nice views. It certainly offered more space, which we desperately needed. But it was in rough shape.
We were young in parenting and in life. I was quite comfortable in our first home, a tidy little bungalow in the nearby hamlet. I had misgivings about a move further into the country. It wasn’t the condition of the place or the work ahead but that I liked having family so close by. One sister-in-law’s back yard bordered ours. Another lived across the street. I felt connected and protected in between.
Despite my objections, the Hubs insisted on this move to what I disparagingly called the Cordwell Ranch. In retrospect, it was the right move. True to form, he had a longer field of vision. So many times it has happened that way: he has had the courage to take the risk and press forward or encourage me onward.
It truly didn’t matter to us that it was so rough; we hardly noticed. Looking back, however, it is clear why nearly everyone who visited said something like, “Well, it has potential.” It was the kindest thing they could muster.
The kitchen was terribly out of date, with uneven cupboards that wouldn’t close properly (the mice loved — eek!) and an ancient wooden countertop with long grooves that caught everything (mother-in-law hated — a health hazard!). The yellowed linoleum was torn and worn and looked dirty, no matter how much I scrubbed.
The one room that could serve as a family room was more like a man-cave; once an attached woodshed, now complete with bar. Its walls were authentic barn wood, flecked with cow manure. The corner wood stove was absolutely required to compensate for its lack of foundation and the biting wind blowing across the open field through the icy cold north country winter. But we didn’t know that, yet.
The second story was one large open room, roughly finished, the stairway steep and narrow. The main floor was a series of small rooms, some daisy-chained together. The walls were lathe and plaster. All the windows and doors needed replacement, as did the electrical wiring, as we would soon discover. The ceilings sagged, the floors sloped, and the pipes froze in the winter. And that’s only on the inside! Outside was a scraggly yard as rough as a wagon trail abutting a barb-wire fence. The house was covered in deteriorating masonite siding. What’s not to love?
Oh, yes. There was also a grandfather maple tree gracing the back yard — the redeeming feature of an otherwise scrappy place. The grand-maple has been present through the seasons; ablaze in glory every fall and a reminder of God’s good gifts spring, summer and winter. I treasure this tree like no other!
Our first contractor was a retired farmer who charged us $5 an hour, God rest his soul. His first project was to create three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. Al didn’t understand sheetrock and insisted on using a circular saw for every cut. I can still see him, entirely masked in white dust, peering out through safety goggles. His signature was using trim to fill the gaps in his rough finish. There was a lot of trim!
Another image seared in my memory is of our youngest, aged two, proudly painting molding laid out upon sawhorses. All of our chids learned early how to pitch in and each became a hard worker; life lessons that continue to serve them well. I quickly learned how to mud sheetrock and hang wallpaper, thanks to my mom and mother-in-law. I was never very good at either, unfortunately but we had a lot of help, thankfully. Many nights, long after the Hubs and chids were asleep, I was painting and papering an old house into a home.
Al’s final project involved a new kitchen ceiling. We realized it must be replaced only after ordering the new linoleum, which was to be installed the next day. At the very least, we had to get the old ceiling out of there. The Hubs took a first pass, knocking down as much lathe and plaster as he could before going back to milk on Sunday afternoon. He left me and the chids knee deep in pile of debris across the kitchen, a portion of the ceiling still intact. But before he left, he called Al.
Good ol’ Al. He arrived within the hour and dove in. He was 70-something, still strong and determined, but he ran up against some difficulties where lathe ran behind the cupboards. Suddenly he ducked out and took off in his truck. He returned with a chainsaw and fired it up in my kitchen without a word. That finished the job. There was a thick haze of blue smoke and chain saw oil splattered everywhere — including across freshly painted cupboards. As I said, that was Al’s final project!
In the nearly three decades we’ve lived here, we’ve more than rebuilt the place. Our biggest project was to remove the kitchen entirely and rebuild with full basement and second story in 2000. That was an adventuresome summer of cooking at camp, our living room completely disconnected from sleeping quarters and bathrooms. We’ve added brick patios with potting shed, cozy fireplace and soothing fountain. Last fall, we created a lovely master suite. It’s taken a lot but we’re pleased and proud of the results.
Over the past few years, however, it’s become less and less of a good fit. We don’t use the space fully or well. I began imagining the adventure of building new home, single story please, and dreaming about moving this old house on to the next generation to fill with laughter and love. Last year, the Hubs came on board with letting it go. For once, if only once in 33 years, I had the viewfinder.
This morning as I write, I’m waiting for the moving truck to arrive and our dream to begin to become reality. Grandboy Henry and family will inhabit the upstairs for the next few months as we build a new home on the adjacent lot. I can hardly believe it’s happening — any of it. I am so thankful. I hope they will be as happy here as we have been. I can’t wait to see what they do with the place!
May the Lord bless and protect you; may the Lord’s face radiate with joy because of you; may he be gracious to you, show you his favor, and give you his peace. Numbers 6:24-26
~ René Morley