Our Imperfect House

Posted on June 21, 2013

We found our way to the house in the town we currently live in not long after our landlady in Arlington gave us the boot from the spacious two-floor apartment we rented in her house. We moved in to her place after returning to the States from Iceland. The location of the apartment was prime – close to aging in-laws, close to the highway that led to my mother’s home, and closer still to Boston, making for an easy work commute. Agreeing to rent for a bit was an easy decision for us. We had lived like nomads for close to fifteen years and renting was familiar, plus it allowed us to take some time to save up and look for an affordable permanent home in a community we liked.

To be honest with you, I could have rented that apartment forever. It wasn’t a perfect space, but I can set up home anywhere and I like renting. I like knowing paint jobs and new roofs and manicured lawns are someone else’s responsibility. For those privileges, I will pledge to respect another person’s property and pay the rent on time, and over that year in Arlington we did all that, plus a lot extra. On occasion, our landlady broke bread with us. She relied on my soup when she fell ill with a bad flu at Christmas. I hauled her Christmas tree to the curb when she didn’t recover fast enough post-flu to do it herself. We perceived ourselves as ideal tenants right up until the day we learned that, after our one-year tenure, she wouldn’t be renewing our lease. In the telling, she added that it was nothing personal; she just didn’t like listening to the sounds of our feet overhead from her first floor home. At the end of the day, our notion of what constituted ideal – the ideal of meals, soup, tree disposal, even regular rent payments –  couldn’t make up for the not-so-ideal pitter-patter of little-ish feet.

With a deadline looming, my husband and I got in the car and began driving, looking for towns with homes we could afford. Meeting that first criteria took a forty-five minute car ride. Finding a house to buy took a little longer. Finally, though, we got news from our realtor that a small older home with a very small yard and reasonably small price tag was coming on the market. She knew us well enough by then to guess it would be a good prospect for us. Fine, if Ann thinks it will work, we’ll take it, sight unseen, my husband and I said to each other in private. At that point we hardly cared what the house looked like or what neighborhood it was in; we needed a place to live. Still, we visited the house on its first day on the market and it looked fine at first glance: good bones, interesting spaces, nice light, a big if irregular kitchen, all this and a short walk to the downtown too. Even though an addition had been tacked onto the side of the house, some interesting Victorian architectural details remained. An original silver door lock and door knocker, a funky transom above the living room door, tall windows, and, outdoors, a period acorn finial hanging from one of the eaves. Even the small yard, reached from front and back by way of two charming latched cottage gates, seemed like a good match for the lawn mowing averse. Yes, we would have taken any abode at that point, but this one was a rather nice one to make do with.

We signed papers on a snowy day in December and moved in in April.

That April we began working to make the house comfortable for our new, settled life. We had the light maple floors refinished to a fine glow; we painted every room, letting the kids pick out the paint colors they wanted; I made and hung drapes. As I did all this I began to notice things about the house, details we hadn’t noticed on our first very cursory pass prior to buying. Like the few window shades that had been hung inside out, meaning the pull strings hung between the shade and the window, almost impossible to access. A sloppy DIY mistake. Every window that didn’t have a shade had instead latched interior shutters that one could open and close to regulate light and privacy. More DIY; many of these were hung unevenly. The ones in my son’s room, however, wouldn’t open at all. But this, I discovered, was intentional. They had been nailed to a wooden frame, the wooden frame nailed across the room’s window, and the shutter latch rendered un-openable by two nails wedged above and below it. There were nails in the window frames too, stopping the window from being opened more than 3 inches. Weird.

As I painted the bedroom’s door frame, I also noticed for the first time a hook-and-eye door lock, making the door easy to lock from outside the bedroom. The wall-mounted homemade safety gates that I had earlier removed from the top and bottom of the stairs began to make a lot of sense. They weren’t just there to protect the children who had once lived in this house from the long flight of stairs. Before my son took over, the room must have belonged to a sleepwalker I told myself. That was my best guess, anyway, and I repeated “sleepwalker” over and over when creepier images of prisoners and madwomen in attics began to flirt with my imagination.

I removed that lock and took down that set of shutters almost immediately. In turn, I went through the rest of the house and took down all the shutters. I took down the backwards shades and installed new ones the right way around, with the pulls on the outside. Not long after, the charming gates leading into the postage stamp yard both came down without my help, victims of too many openings and closings and posts that had been sunk directly into the damp earth without cement anchor. The letter carrier apologized when the front gate fell as she entered the yard to deliver the mail. It’s not your fault, I told her, and it wasn’t. The bottoms of the posts had rotted clean away. I pulled out the stumps and broke down the gates, and then set them out for a trash collection.

When it came to the kitchen, there was much work to be done from the get-go, but we hardly noticed that either. We were initially won over by the room’s size and the flood of natural light. That there was a deck off the back didn’t hurt, but it was the expanse of counter that sealed the deal. We could really cook in and live in this space. Seeing the kitchen through those twin desires blinded us to the flaws. We never noticed the flimsiness of the white laminate kitchen cabinets and their hinges. Or the ceramic tile that was laid on the floor but would have been better placed on a bathroom wall (as floor covering, its beveled edges and sunken grouting make a repository for dirt and crumbs, cleanable only with a toothbrush and elbow grease). Or even the lack of hooded ventilation for the stove and the telltale marks of remnant grease on the windows above the cooktop. Maybe the blindness resulted from being renters for so long. We were long used to making do with rooms that were less than ideal, unused to the idea of taking ownership of a space, and that may have kept us living and working in the room long after the first cabinet door came loose.

Lately, as this major demolition looms, I find myself thinking a lot about the slapdash work we inherited and my own blindness to it. I also think of the small jobs behind and the big job ahead. This isn’t me climbing on a ladder to unscrew a bracket any more; a kitchen renovation is serious business, complete with jackhammers and sledgehammers. At the very least it should be thoughtful business, and I hope I am making choices and taking steps to ensure the house lasts well into the future. It has housed us well in spite of everything, the old lady deserves a little respect. And beyond that, I would also like to think we have been careful stewards of the house for any family who may live here in the future. I’d like to think some future owner won’t be cursing me out for a backwards shade or my choice to remove a door.

More likely, though, that person in the future will find an opportunity to curse or at least question my work. She will identify the many things she feels are wrong and in need of fixing. By then she may even come to hate the remodeled kitchen with as much passion as I hope to love it, and prepare that room for fixing too. When her work is done, I hope she has the home she wants. I hope it will be perfect for her.

What’s Cooking This Week

This week beets show up everywhere. I love them like I love the green accent color I have just chosen for the new kitchen decor. Just as not everybody will like the green, not everybody likes beets either. If want to like beets, or if you want your children to at least give beets a chance, try being a beet disguiser. Head on over to Agrigirl’s Blog to find out how she hid beets in brownies using her red ingenuity, but follow her advice and don’t let the kids know you’ve made the brownies with beets before they take a taste. Tammy includes some fascinating history of red velvet cake too.

Agrigirl’s history of the red velvet prompted me to pull out a Nigel Slater recipe for true red velvet cake that I found last year and tucked away. In most instances, I don’t get red velvet cake. So little cocoa, so much red food coloring, and why? The red doesn’t look natural, and it doesn’t taste like anything. Give me devil’s food any day. Rich with chocolate, that’s a cake I can get behind.

Nigel Slater’s take on red velvet cake is full of chocolate and gets its reddish hue from finely chopped beets, not dye. There’s nothing insipid or fake about the finished cake, and the texture is wonderful, slightly airy from beaten egg whites but still rich and – yes – velvety. I made this recipe with one change. Having no superfine sugar in the house, I used regular granulated. Because I wanted to make sure this sugar blended as well as the finer grind would, I added the sugar to the egg whites slowly, making a meringue first rather than folding the sugar directly into the batter. Try it either way, you will love it. Top a sliver with unsweetened whipped cream and a few strawberries.

Perhaps you are morally opposed to disguising beets and would rather be upfront about getting your beet-hating friends and family to love the root vegetable. Cookbook author Maria Speck (Ancient Grains for Modern Meals) promises that even the most diehard of beet-o-phobes will experience a change of heart about beets once they have tasted her Greek grandmother’s beet salad. You’ll find that recipe on her blog.

You may remember my favorite beet recipe is my mother-in-law’s recipe for pickled beets. Just last week, though, I was at the hair salon waiting for my haircut and leafing through Cooking Light magazine. In it was a recipe for beets pickled in a liquid made from raspberries and rose wine. It looked so good I tried it on this week’s CSA beets. They are delicious, sweeter and less puckery than Theresa Ward’s version, and the raspberries add an intriguing finish and freshness. Maybe I even drank some of the pickling liquid, I’ll never tell.

Find the recipe using the link above. I think you’ll love them. Here are my results:

©2013  Jane A. Ward