Welcome novelist, Elle Powers, as she shares her thoughts about her lovely turn-of-the-century farmhouse, located here in Virginia.
Visit her at www.to-elle-and-back.com.
Confession: I have a love-hate relationship with my home.
I love the charm and “old” energy of this turn-of-the-century farmhouse, with its original, unpainted woodwork, marble doorknobs, warped glass, skeleton keys, coal fireplace, and soapstone mantle.
But I hate the bad wiring, the noisy pipes, the drafty windows, the flaking lead paint. A hundred-plus years of living damages a structure, no matter how well-built. Sometimes I overlook its charm and dream of a new house—one that heats and cools properly and doesn’t come with a well-traveled underground railroad for mice.
It needs new bathrooms and a new kitchen. The floors need to be sanded and varnished. I won’t even talk about the Victorian closets (for there is no such thing).
As an author who writes from home, I find these to-dos distracting. And yet, the timeworn and quirky characteristics capture my writer’s fancy, as I find myself imagining life in this house before I was here.
It was a doctor’s house originally; the little cottage behind it was his surgery where he treated patients. (When we first moved in, we found his prescription pad between the floorboards.)
Then it was a boardinghouse, run by a widow who was renting rooms to provide for her children. In those days, the house featured new indoor plumbing, but boarders had to cross an outdoor porch to get to the upstairs bath.
I didn’t know the proprietress personally, but my dining room features some of her handicrafts: a painted plate and an intricately knitted medallion. I understand that she was nearly blind when she made these.
This house was her livelihood. It was also the doctor’s place of employment. Nowadays I work from this home, as does my husband (who uses the doctor’s cottage for his office).
I work here … and I see all the work to be done here. It overwhelms me at times.
When I first began reading the Small Town Rambler blog, I reached out to Karla about some of the home improvement projects that seem beyond me. Her posts made me feel hopeful about what I could do myself.
Okay, so I don’t have the money to rip out and reinstall my bathroom right now, but I can paint it and make clever little tweaks. There. That feels so much better, and I didn’t blow my budget.
Of particular concern was this mirror.
It is a bizarre family heirloom of sorts from England. When my mother-in-law was expecting her first child—my husband—she was working as a barmaid in Oxford. The famous Irish whiskey label inspired my husband’s middle name. The Irish Coffee mirror came with him, and we named our first son Jameson too.
When my second of three sons was born, the mirror was doomed. Jackson inherited, along with his father’s smile, a destructive gene. Nothing was safe, especially during his early years, and the Jameson mirror was one victim of his misadventures.
Ten years after the break, Karla told me she didn’t know how to fix a mirror but would ask her friends at nearby Integrity Glass. Of course the cracks will always be seen, but the glass folk set the broken pieces onto a new plane of glass, and now it’s whole once more.
When a friend came over after it was on the wall again, she looked at herself and laughed. “I love this. I just love it,” she exclaimed. “It makes me happy.”
And I love it too. I love that it’s broken. That’s part of its story. When I see those cracks and remember that small, blue-eyed whirling dervish, I smile.
Now I realize that the mirror is like my house. Sure it’s got some wear and tear, but it’s in one piece. It’s survived storms and winters, children and tenants and mice. It’s got substance and meaning, and its breaks just mean that people live here. They’ve lived here for 120 years. That’s quite a story these walls could tell.
I’ve come to love its imperfections. Yeah, that soapstone mantel is scarred, and I don’t know how to restore it. But one day I might learn. And I’ll appreciate it more for the work put into it.
And the plaster walls are bumpy and cracked. But I sanded over the paint to intentionally highlight the bumps and cracks because they make it more interesting.
I think a long-ago tenant hung a paper dartboard on my bedroom door. But until I find the right materials to patch it, the holes let in more light. And I chuckle because whoever boarded in my room never was very good at throwing darts.
These little transformations and revelations help me accept the nuisances of this old house.
And I believe this is precisely the message of Small Town Rambler: You can do it yourself and you don’t have to spend money you don’t have. New is not necessarily better, but you can make old things new to you.
It’s like a doctor who opens his home to serve the broken people of the neighborhood. Like a woman with broken eyesight who welcomes travelers and works art with her hands. Like the local glass shop that makes a broken mirror to tell a family’s story once again.
It’s broken. But it’s beautiful. And it serves.