renovations

We have become… them.

When Martin and I bought our first house, almost 20 years ago, it was love at first sight.

The realtor unlocked the door and I sprinted up the stairs, shouting with joy — extinguishing any chance of price negotiation.

And I brainwashed Martin to accept this 1890s white elephant, despite faulty wiring, water damage, cracked plaster, and (as we learned at home inspection) a roof without flashing, and a furnace that — if used — might burn down the house.

That first morning, however, Martin and I weren’t merely stunned by the repairs, but by the general state of the house. It was a mess: dishes piled in the sink and mounds of dirty clothes in every bedroom. A catcher’s mask, chest protector and leg guards scattered in a bathroom suggested a player urgently needed the toilet. But the discarded gear looked days old.

As we wandered around and absorbed it all, the family dog — plagued by a nervous bladder — trailed us, pausing to squat in each room.

“How do people live like this?” I asked Martin.

“No idea,” he replied. Not only had the owners failed to tidy up for potential buyers, they obviously resided in a perpetual state of clutter.

“Well, they do have five kids,” the realtor remarked blandly.

“Even so,” Martin said, as he waded through knee-deep oak leaves, which had killed the lawn after years of neglect.

We couldn’t conceive that capable, able-bodied adults would abandon all semblance of order. Why didn’t they patch the ceiling? Or fix the leaky pipes?

And what kind of useless, heathen children were they raising?

Clearly, they weren’t right in the head.

We renovated the house, enlisting family and friends to assist with the demo and prep work. Outdoors, we restored order and reclaimed the yard, filling a full-sized dumpster with twigs and tree limbs.

The master bedroom, down to the lath

 

 

Prying up carpet staples in the hall, with Dad

Within a few months, the house was habitable and we lived there for three, fun-filled, party-fueled years. But eventually we moved on.

Over the years, I’ve thought about the former owners of that house, and wondered about their neglect and lackluster care.

Fast forward 20 years and I no longer wonder. All of my questions have been answered.

Recently, Martin and I stood ankle-deep in toys, gazing at the yard which resembled a graveyard for garden tools. We were knocking around the topic of home repairs. This discussion always starts and ends the same: We need new siding, and should buy new windows, which would necessitate more insulation (and God knows what else), and if we’re ripping out walls, we should install central AC, and don’t forget the ancient kitchen, not to mention our master bathroom… but we can’t afford all that, so why are we having this conversation anyway?

“You know… that we’ve become them,” I said. “Those people with the kids, who owned our first house and let the place fall apart and become a pigsty. We couldn’t figure them out. But now we ARE them!”

Martin looked resigned, admitting that he’d already reached that conclusion.

A month ago, my mom stumbled on a listing of our first home. It has changed hands a few times, and undergone progressive upgrades and renovations. Presently, it is picture-perfect.

The living and dining rooms

We scrolled through the photos, marveling at improvements that others would miss — heating where there hadn’t been any, using vintage radiators that matched the rest.

The baseball gear bathroom, which had no heat and was always shabby.

The kitchen layout was the same, but it looked divine. I’m sure that the owners would cringe with revulsion if they saw the state of their home 20 years ago.

Here’s a photo of a sitting room, when we closed on the house.

We removed the grim paneling, and ripped out the carpeting throughout the house. When I snapped the photo below, we had moved in, but were still renovating — hence the missing window moldings.

(Side note: I mentioned this particular floor-to-ceiling window in a February post, in reference to Corrie, who’d deliver her Border Collie stare when we watched TV and feigned fatigue.)

Our renovation was a vast improvement.

But another owner took a cataclysmic leap in the quality of upgrades and decor. Here’s that same room today.

“You know, we could do this!” Martin said, scrolling through pictures of our old house transformed. “If we’re tearing out the siding and walls, I think we should move the kitchen to the other side of the house, and build out a new mudroom, and then put a living room where the kitchen was before…”

Move the kitchen? Sure, that sounds realistic and affordable.

Personally, I’d take a kitchen and bathroom upgrade, and new siding. Some day.

In the short term, I’d settle for less clutter…

…And fewer rug-dwelling potato chips and cookie crumbs, stuck to the bottom of my socks.

Wild Bill’s Cat Hatch

Version 2

When my friend Wild Bill was working on our farm, crafting new barn windows, we tugged on his sleeve to help us with another fix. (Yes, this story is a bit dated. Sorry.)

Martin asked Bill if he could remove a section of roof adjoining his office, and seal off the crawl space overhead. (For you new readers: in its former life, Martin’s office was a milk parlor. Also known as the “Mouse House” on this blog.)

Anyway…

The breezeway between the barn loft and milk parlor has probably been a critter thoroughfare for decades. But it became problematic when we renovated the Mouse House, and Martin started squatting there during the workweek.

Commonsense suggests that the attic-like space harbors raccoons, possums and the occasional barn cat. But there are days when it sounds like a pack of bears are slam-dancing overhead. (I thought Martin was exaggerating until I heard the thumping and pounding. It was disconcerting; I left quickly.)

And on occasion, something dies up there; the putrid smell of decay lingers for weeks. (If you’ve had a critter expire in the walls of your house, then you’re familiar with this odor.)

So we asked Wild Bill to fix it. But we didn’t consider the potential complications.

Bill opened the roof and spotted the narrow entry point — a ramped, inaccessible passage — barely visible with a flashlight.

That’s when Martin spoke up: “How do we know that all of the cats are out of there?”

Bill shrugged in that “what’s one less barn cat?” motion.

But Martin and I weren’t keen on entombing a barn cat — even fat, useless Felix.

We needed a feline head count, but our cats are notoriously absent when strangers are present, so Bill and his assistant left for lunch.

Then I hollered for each cat. I tracked down 4 out of 5.

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Olive and Toulouse emerged as I inspected the breezeway.

Our one no-show: Mel. My favorite cat.

Wild Bill returned while Martin and I debated the odds that Mel was hiding overhead. Trapping Melbert seemed risky and we suggested abandoning the project and trying again in the spring.

Bill realized that we were cat-crazy clients, so he came up with a clever solution: he blocked off the passageway, but fashioned a hinged door.

A cat hatch.

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Then he sealed up the roof again. Attached to the seemingly inaccessible hatch: a string that dangled down through a tiny hole drilled through the breezeway ceiling. A tug on the string opened the door; release the string and we could hear the hatch shut with a satisfying thump.

“If you hear a cat up there, just open the hatch,” Bill said. “Then, when they’re all accounted for, just cut the string.”

Brilliant.

If you visit our farm, you’ll see the bright orange string. It dangles down in front of Martin’s office door… in memory of Wild Bill’s handy work.

As for Mel?

He sauntered out of the bushes, right after Bill’s car rolled down the drive.

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Snake segue

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“You have a lot of snakes around here?”

Roofer John asked me that this morning, as I moved hay bales in the barn. He was barely audible over the screech of metal as his crew tore at the roof above.

“Do we have alotta what?” I asked.

“Snakes,” he said, quieter still.

John’s laconic communication leads me to babble like an idiot. “Snakes? Yea, I guess so. I mean, we have one that lives in our cellar in the winter. We don’t see him but we find his skin in the spring — he’s pretty shy. And sometimes I see them sunning by the barn in the summer. Black snakes — they’re good mousers — so we like them. Wait… why are you asking?”

“We found a dead one.”

“A dead snake? Is it small? Sometimes the cats kill corn snakes,” I offered.

John gave a noncommittal shrug. I followed him and spotted the snake on the ground by the barn — its white belly, face up.

I smirked at John. “Very funny.”

But he wasn’t smiling.

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I waited for him to break his deadpan.

“John,” I said, casting a sideways glance at Mike, the sentry standing nearby. “You know that’s not a real snake, right? It was on the cupola on the roof…. to keep the pigeons from using the cupola to enter the hayloft. It’s fake. Your guys probably threw it down.”

Anyone else would be embarrassed or appear sheepish. Or express relief to discover a fake snake. Not John.

“Oh,” he said.

“Did it work up there?”

“Yea… it did.”

“So, I guess it should go back on the new cupola?”

“Yea… I guess it should.”

That’s the longest exchange I’ve had with John. Unfortunately, the pigeon deterrent did not provide a smooth segue into prying, personal questions about Amishness. Hey, speaking of fake snakes, why can’t you drive a car when you’re driving that engine-powered boom lift all over the farm? 

It might be time to channel my info-gathering efforts on Mike. The driver.

Chauffeurs are always in the know.