Monthly Archives: August 2013

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The other day our mostly blind neighbor came by, cane tapping the sidewalk, and stopped in front of our house. “I’m here for the inspection,” he said. “You pass!” That’s pretty awesome, because the other day when I came home from work, Joe said, “Hey, I don’t know if you noticed, but your window is sitting on your porch.”

Um, no. I didn’t notice. And there it was:

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We’ve gotten to a place in our lives where chaos is the condition. We have a door made of plywood, the remnants of a piano box nailed up as a wall, and a plank to take us over a threshold that has nothing holding it up.  I have developed an uncanny ability to not see what is around me. It’s a fine survival strategy, but it worries me. Sometimes I think we humans are too good at this.

I’ve also been using another survival strategy. My renovating neighbors and I, we all know: sometimes you stop doing what is most important so that you can do something pretty. So, about a month ago, we planted a garden. We tore up the grass in front of our home, lined it and mulched it, and Kyle turned it over to me. This was a bold (read: not very good) move, because I am definitely not the gardener in our relationship. But the man had things to do that involved more than a unicep, and so he passed it my way.

I read the tags, methodically laid the flowers out, and planted. Then Kyle walked out. “Oh,” he said. “You know you’re supposed to bunch the flowers together, right?”

No. Thanks for letting me know the second after I finished planting.

Even worse, while happily reading a book on Dayton history the next day, I discovered I broke two out of the three rules of gardening. At least, according to John Patterson, business magnate of the late 1800s and Kyle Wilkinson’s crony. No straight lines (I did all straight lines). Cluster flowers (fine, team up against me). Leave open centers (I managed this one, but only because a lot of the things I planted died).

Still, I tried. And then afterwards I went back to the other things we now know too well. Lugging old wood. Hauling buckets of plaster. Seeing only the project in front of us. You know: fun things!

I keep thinking about something else I read in the history book, something Governor Cox said after the great Dayton flood. He credited the low death toll to “the remarkable capacity of the human being to save his own life.” There are plenty of survival strategies. But sometimes, surviving is the strategy.

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We love this house. At first I thought it was a case of Stockholm syndrome. To quote my good friend Wikipedia: Stockholm syndrome, or capture–bonding, is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them. These feelings are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, who essentially mistake a lack of abuse from their captors for an act of kindness.

However, the house hasn’t actually stopped abusing us, so I’ve decided Stockholm isn’t it.

Instead I think my irrational affection springs from the people who called this place home before me. I know the name of every family that lived in our house, and a creepy number of facts about them, thanks to ancestry.com and a really nice lady with glasses down at city records.

When we bought the house, we were told it was built in 1899. Actually? The first part of it was built in the 1850s by a young gunsmith, and then a plasterer did a big addition in 1871. I also know that William H. Finch (the plasterer who expanded our home) was born in North Carolina or Alabama (the Ohioan census takers seemed a bit fuzzy on geography), married an Ohio woman, and had at least one child who died. I know that he lived in our house with his wife Margaret, a daughter who helped “keep house,” and two twin sons. I know that one of those sons, Milton, was 19 when they built onto the home. I know he was a bookkeeper who would eventually become a plasterer.

And? Milton wrote me a note.

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You can’t see it well, but Milton H. Finch wrote his name and his birthday and dated it. It was lurking behind the very last sheet of wallpaper I pulled down. Which totally validates the month I spent doing this:

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I can’t explain why a signature feels like adequate pay for a summer spent steaming wallpaper (often three or more layers deep) off of every room in the house. But it does. I just met Milt! I like to imagine the life he led in these walls. Not so much his clerking, or other facts I can find on the census, but the things he was thinking when he scribbled his name. Was he rebellious? Proud? Bored? I can’t know; there’s so much of our lives that gets washed away by time. But what I do know is this. He was here. And as further proof, found scratched on our basement wall:

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Milt Finch was there, too.

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Once a writing teacher, genuinely mystified, said: “Wow, so many of you have parents that are jerks. It’s like, why do you still even talk to them? That’s what needs to be explained in these essays.”

I love this guy, but that’s one of the craziest things I’ve ever heard. We talk to them because we are family. They are family so we talk to them. It’s a tautology, but it’s true. (Also, I really like my family, so there’s that, too).

I don’t claim to understand what makes family bonds so potent. They are an accident of blood. But they are. And I know they are, because I have this to prove it. Here is the back of our house before Kyle’s cousins came to visit:

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And then this happened:

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And here is the back of our house now:

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Those guys took down a room in a day. Strangely enough, they decided to head back home a day earlier than originally planned. And then they sent us this:

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That is a thank you note. They thanked us for letting them drive four hours (each way) to spend a day tearing apart a room.

That’s family.

But the work wasn’t done. The next week Kyle’s dad came to help. He and Joe (handyman/savior) spent a day jackhammering up the concrete. For context, Joe has been in the construction business 15 years and volunteers to bale hay on weekends. Kyle’s dad played hockey for years and can bike better than most teenagers. They both described it as “Probably the hardest day. Ever.” Strangely enough, Kyle’s dad decided to head back a day earlier than planned.

All I can say is that this house makes me very thankful for things I don’t understand. The tribal beat of family. The mystery of indoor plumbing (which needs to lose its mystery fast). The way you can feel like you’ve just survived the hardest day ever, and then start again the very next day.

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The other day the dog therapist came over (a whole story in and of itself) and said, “These houses have such great craftsmanship. Built by Germans. Great builders.”

Great builders? More like great drinkers.

Here is what we’ve collected from our basement, all predating 1915:

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All I know is that a bedroom floor was put on wrong, our foundation is falling apart, and the advent of indoor plumbing sent workmen happily hewing through most major support beams. The people living in our home excelled in one art: survival.

As evidence, we recently spent a day exposing the brick chimney in our future master suite. (Really, it was a whole weekend tag-teaming the brutal chiseling off of plaster while sweating it out on other projects.) What we found was this:
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A homemade vent crafted by wedging a paint can, removable lid and all, into the brick.

Our people were resourceful. They had to be. Our home was never the home of the rich. By 1899 it had passed hands from a gunsmith to a plasterer to a restaurateur to a real estate agent. It wasn’t a home graced by easy times, either. This house, and the people in it, stood through the civil war and children who didn’t grow up and the flood of 1913. Our people shoveled ten feet of mud out of our house’s water-logged walls. And then they moved back in.

I like to think we are part of this lineage. The work we are doing is dirty and slow, and we often go at it stupidly, like the neophytes we are. But we are doing it. I think that’s why the flood mud found in the kitchen roof means as much to me as the lovely molding in our foyer. I admire beautiful things. But it is the sheer stubborness of the hands that shaped these walls (even if they sometimes made a mess while doing it) that I can relate to.

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I moved every single year between the ages of 18 and 27. Sometimes more than once a year. The only good thing I can say about moving is that it makes your ties with things more tenuous. You learn to shave down your love for things made of plastic or wood or paper: leaving is easier when you can leave a lot behind.

27 to 30? Three blissful years of not moving. I forgot the smell of  dusty cardboard boxes. It was lovely.

The last two months? We’ve moved three or four times, depending on how you count it. Not lovely.

From Texas to a hotel in Dayton. From the hotel to our house. Out of our house into our neighbors’ duplex. Out of their duplex into our second property, assuming the short sale process ever wraps up. Here is how Godiva and I feel about it:

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It’s miserable. I read George Saunders’ graduation speech the other day, and it made me realize we’ve only made it through this relatively unscathed because we are, generally, kind to each other. I mean me and Kyle, and also, our small circle of friends and neighbors. (On the other hand, Kyle is sort of a jerk to Godiva, and limits her supply of well-deserved cookies, but that’s another story).

Why are we moving so much? The short answer is that we are crazy. But also, we thought we’d be able to live in our house. And then, once we realized we couldn’t, we thought we’d be able to move back in after two months. And, also, we decided owning one old house was so much fun, we might as well get a second. So here we are, having just finished our last-for-a-while move. And then we will move again.

Lesson: in the short term, optimism looks a whole lot like stupidity.

But I think it will pay off. As proof, take a look at our house, which looks like it is recovering from a chicken pox:

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Nail holes nearly all patched. Priming and painting happening soon. And forget what I said about moving keeping you detached from non-sentient physical things: I am totally obsessed with our broken-down baby.