This Old House

When I lived in Boston many years ago, there was a show on television called “This Old House.” Each season of the show, the host Bob Vila, handyman, architect, contractor and visionary would select an old house in the Boston vicinity. Many times, these homes were not merely in need of renovation—they were in need of resurrection. Week after week, episode after episode I would stare at the screen transfixed as new masonry replaced crumbling stone walls, and beautiful decorative moldings emerged from coats of old paint, much of it leaded. I marveled at the fact that one did not have to destroy an old house, raze it and tear it to the ground in order to have a new and better house emerge. It was all about preserving the “bones”, the integrity and the beauty while bringing new technology and materials to bear.


My husband and I owned two old houses when we lived in the Boston area more than twenty years ago. The second house was a Georgian style colonial, built in the 1920’s from red brick left over from building the “houses” at Harvard. When I first saw the house, it had been untouched since its birth during the Jazz Age. Strings of glass flapper beads hung in the opening between the dining room and the old closet that served as a kitchen. Gilded tin repousse valences topped windows that showed bubbles in the old glass. There was a foot of standing water in the basement. The well, as it turned out, had been dug on the neighbor’s property—folks just didn’t seem to pay all that much attention to property lines back then. I was instantly smitten. Two years, and my entire salary for those two years later, the old place was fine indeed, with a new kitchen, a new family room and a new master suite. Oh, and a new well. We made the final payment to the contractor and a week later, watched as our belongings were loaded onto a van for the move to San Diego. I cried.


Last Sunday I begged my daughter’s indulgence as we drove out Route 9 to Route 16 to the rural town of Sherborn, so we could cruise by—not the brilliantly renovated Georgian colonial–but the very first house we bought when we got married in 1980, an 1860’s post and beam Victorian, quite ridden with decay by the time we made our proud purchase. As we passed the old place at 10 Everett Street, I made her mortification complete as I spotted what appeared to be the latest owner in the driveway and hopped out of the car wielding my camera to introduce myself. When we lived there, the house was very small, barely 1500 square feet. Using Google Earth, I had convinced myself that the old homestead had been torn down and a brand new house built.


Staring wide eyed at the beautiful home in front of me, I realized that was not the case. The old aluminum siding had been taken down revealing the classic Victorian “fish scales” under the peaked eaves of the roof along with moldings mounted in a zig zag pattern, painted a dark burgundy against the pale khaki of the wood outer walls and the dark green window trim. The carriage house, which had been in a state of near collapse when we owned the place, had been shored up and connected to the main house with a new family room. The old garage apartment was now an art studio. Smiling, the owner invited me in. The front door still had its rippled stained glass, and the hardwood knotty pine floors underfoot still carried the coats of polyurethane my husband applied 33 years ago when he sanded the old paint off in a labor of sweat and love. She said, “We saved everything that was good about this place. We love it here. We will never leave.”

She led me through the house to the expansive back yard, the place where our first deerhounds ran to their hearts content and my daughter picked lilacs and forsythia and blueberries in the spring. She said, “I saved the best for last.” Suddenly, I spotted a new structure—a wooden barn painted to match the house. Two horses grazed in the field. Inside the barn was hung a painted sign which read, “It’s never too late to live happily ever after.” We romanticize our past when we should be planning our future. Happily ever after, indeed.

Dear Catherine

When I saw the peonies just poking their new shoots above the ground next to your house, it was almost too much to bear. I love peonies. In 1991 we bought the house on Strawberry Hill back in Dover Massachusetts. The perennial gardens were seventy years old then, and I had no idea what was planted there. That spring was a miracle—tulips and irises and daffodils and crocuses shot up in green tendrils through the last few mounds of old snow and blossomed into a riot of color. But the peonies were a surprise—crawling with ants they lifted their heavy heads and bloomed into unparalleled delicacy. I was in awe, and the peonies and the lilacs are two of the things I will always miss from my years in Boston. I wish I had taken more photographs. When I saw your peonies, I cried for both of us.

I have been to New Mexico many many times, and I agree with all of the tourist literature and hype: New Mexico is indeed the Land of Enchantment. Everyone knows and loves Georgia O’Keefe, but in my opinion Wilson Hurley did it best. He captured the big skies and sunsets that the Navajo saw before the white folks came and that keep people like me coming back. The sunsets, and the friends I have made there hold a special grip on me. Of all of my friends, you were unique. An Army “brat”, you had lived everywhere—Florida, Europe, Japan, New York City. You were educated, you spoke several languages, you rode horses and had collies and you loved the ballet. But in the end, you came back to Albuquerque, to a home you loved. We met because of the deerhounds—in a world of instant gratification, fast food and big screen violence and romance, we were anachronisms together.

I too came back to Albuquerque–on Wednesday to help Joan settle your estate. Your parents died in 2008 and 2009—you had no brothers or sisters or children. In the end, crippled by an old accident which had shattered your legs at nineteen and dampened your spirit, you succumbed to diabetes, heart disease, infection and time. I could have done, and should have done more for you. When I visited, I always stayed at the hotel you recommended. You said, “Stay with me NEXT time, after I get the house fixed up.” I did not want to inconvenience you, and besides, having so many dogs and cats and demands at home, staying in a quiet hotel, with the soothing sounds of an air conditioner and no midnight potty calls seemed like a luxury to me.

In August, when you got sick, Joan finally had the key and let us into your house. I was appalled at the conditions you were living in. I had no idea—Natalee was supposed to be taking care of you. She failed miserably at her duties, and she took advantage of you, and I was determined that you could not, and would not go home until we had remedied the situation. We spoke in the hospital of your expansive back yard, and of the charm that the little adobe home must have had in the past. You agreed that it was time, finally, to reclaim that charm, the sun filled living room, the warmth of those thick adobe walls, the cozy bedrooms, and the photographs of the greatest dancers the world has known. You knew that it was time, and you let Joan hire a contractor. All you ever wanted was to be home by Christmas.

The house is beautiful, Catherine. The living room walls are a pale turquoise, just as you picked out. Your bedroom is the same color and the guest rooms are a lovely yellow, the color of the New Mexico sunshine. There is an amazing tub in the bathroom, perfect for a person in a wheelchair such as yourself—you just grab the handrails and do the transfer and sit on the bench while the door seals itself shut and you soak in warm water up to your neck. I am so sad that you never got to enjoy it. Joan did a wonderful job.

I miss you Catherine—your wit, your humor, your love of pretty colored gemstones, and of course the calendars you sent me each year of the handsomest men in the world. I know you always favored Viggo, but you humored me with photos of Gerard Butler and Sean Bean and Orlando Bloom and Javier Bardem and Olivier Martinez. I will keep those calendars forever, to remind me that we, you and I, can always dream of handsome men and beautiful jewels. I hope that your deerhounds met you at the “bridge”, and that you are there as in your youth, dancing in your finest pearls.

For the rest of us, tell the people you love, that you love them every day. You never know when you won’t get a chance to anymore.