Thursday, May 21, 2015
Recently we had to have all our porch and step railings replaced because they'd rotted. It took months to get them rebuilt and painted. Now that all the work's done, I wanted to show you some “after” pictures and tell you a little about how I became interested in historic preservation.
I didn’t grow up in an old house; I grew up in a new house in a new suburban neighborhood in Tallahassee. Yet my love of old houses began when I was very young.
I think the passion really took hold when I was five and my mom read me Magic Elizabeth by Norma Kassirer. It’s still one of my favorite books. The plot goes something like this: One summer a lonely little girl named Sally is left in the care of her mother’s lonely, seemingly stern old aunt who’s in town for a few months to sell her childhood home, a rundown Victorian. At first Sally's scared of the old house and the old lady, but she gradually begins to enjoy herself. She spends her days exploring the attic and the tangled garden, and in the end she solves a decades-old mystery, finding a beloved doll (Elizabeth) that Aunt Sarah lost as a child. The best part is the last page: Aunt Sarah announces that she’s decided not to sell the house but to restore it and live in it, and Sally promises to come over all the time and visit.
The book made a huge impression on me. After Mom and I finished reading, I began to believe that answers could be found in old houses. Or at least clues. An old house had secrets, stories, wisdom. It could tell you things. That’s what Magic Elizabeth taught me. I only got to visit my grandmother’s 19th-century farmhouse a few times in my life, but when I did I’d head straight to the attic. I’d dig through dusty chests and page through old, falling-apart picture books, trying to figure out who I was and where I’d come from.
See, my family lived really far away from any relatives and we hardly ever went visiting, so I was always full of questions about my identity and my family history. As I rummaged through Gramma’s trunks and boxes, I was looking for answers. Why was my mother the way she was? Why had she married my father? Why did we live so far away?
Gramma’s house was razed in the 1980s, and I sure wish it hadn’t been. I always considered that a terrible mistake, because Magic Elizabeth taught me that historic preservation can have a healing effect—not just on old buildings but on people, on broken families.
It can help mend entire communities, I've come to believe. Experiencing old places can give us a greater sense of belonging, make us feel less alone. It can help us understand that we’re part of a continuum, that we’re connected to the people of the past and the people of the future.
Living in my old house, I’m constantly aware of the “ghosts,” the people who lived here before I did. When I’m digging in the vegetable garden I often find their lost buttons and coins, and the daffodils they planted still bloom around my birthday. I’m also aware that if all goes right the house will outlast me and someone new will live here someday. Until then, I’ll keep fixing stuff and painting and repainting. I’ll try to be a good steward.