Margaret’s rural Cape Breton years belied the tragic circumstances of her Birmingham childhood, when a series of devastating decisions and a society unwilling or unable to care for its most destitute ripped her from her mother and separated her from her siblings. The paradox of her life and my fragmentary understanding of it sat uncomfortably with me for decades, prompting an effort to summon Nana from photos, details mostly lost with the passage of time, and scarce accounts spread between the country of her birth and the one of her death.
The habits of herons, their love of tall fir trees and their mad, strangled caw were not something I had thought of before. Nor had I ever worried about the health of a languid garter snake or contemplated the snacking choices of fat round bunnies.
Over the past year and a bit, our once ramshackle homestead afforded us the luxury to observe the little wonders that became a gentle reprieve from plaster dust and paint. With no television and a weak cell signal best caught between barn and house, simple escapes into the small farm’s ecosystem were as much necessity as choice.
But, the heavy work is behind us and the mad world will not be kept at bay. The Internet has arrived, its modem flashing somewhere in the stone basement marking the constant, ceaseless flow of bits and bytes gathering into a flow of data prefixed by kilo, mega and giga. Our 19th century house: Now with real time updates.
Hardwired charging portals and shiny new appliances possessed of their own intelligence remind us that we are of this time. Try as we might to carry pieces of the past along for the ride – a quarter-sawn oak table, a couple of spool beds, and a pretty step-back china cabinet – we should not forget that we sit in a fully-renovated house first explored on Google street view.
This reinvented blue house will not insulate us from the modern age we mostly willingly inhabit, but I hope it provides us the rare opportunity to unplug and and set an easier pace in step with our surroundings.
Our old blue house is free of its frayed and fussy trappings; windows and walls bare save for fresh skims of plaster and pale paint. Upstairs, floorboards painstakingly uncovered after years of carpet and lino are re-coated in cool, clean coats of grey.
Sunlight slants through the windows bounces brightly off glossy floors or speaks softly in the warm glow from a bedroom.
This is the void, the beautiful blankness between the decades of people who came before us, and the unknowable life that awaits us here. For this brief time the house is quiet and still, no longer theirs, not fully ours, unencumbered and liberated from years and layers of imposed taste.
I hope its former occupants would feel we have been kind to their house, respectful of the shelter it has provided and the stories it protects.
While we bring the work to its long-laboured conclusion, we will let the little house have its quiet moment. And then, we will happily fill it with the furnishings, family and friends to make it our own.
One year ago our phone rang during breakfast with word that our low-ball offer on a tired wooden seaside house had been accepted. Nervous laughter came first, followed quickly by the happy realization that our contentedly predictable life was about to take a turn.
We already had a house in Halifax, busy jobs, and two teenagers. Perhaps this was a latent mid-life crisis or a desperate attempt at HGTV role playing. Whatever the case, we were soon to be the proud owners of a warts-and-all blue house with a red barn.
Greg assured me he could deal with anything the house had in store. I was just starting to believe him, when his phone buzzed. The real estate agent, no doubt.
Instead it was a text from his brother Chris in Toronto, “Can I call you? I have some rough news to share.”
His wife Stephanie had been told she was facing a hell of a fight against cancer. Just like that, everything changed. We had imagined Chris, Steph and their three wild boys as regular blue house visitors, maybe even converting the barn into their own summer place.
My immediate inclination was to cancel the deal. It felt wrong to embark on a house adventure in the face of such sadness and uncertainty. Greg was sure that Chris and Stephanie would not want us to back out and so we proceeded, uneasily.
Within a few days, the doctors had a brighter assessment of Stephanie’s condition, and we pushed aside fear to make room for hope.
We got the keys to the old place in May while Stephanie was undergoing chemo, biking or walking to every appointment and stunning all of us with her tenacity. While she and Chris governed their lives around medical appointments, we were ruled by dumpster drop offs and painter schedules.
This weekend marked two starkly different anniversaries that together remind us that life is precious, its unknowable path to be embraced.
The snow remained heavy around the old house today but the sun’s warmth whispered spring is coming. Greg and I are determined to ready the house for summer. In July we have another anniversary to celebrate, one year since Stephanie successfully completed her treatment.
Champagne will be chilled and the beer fridge stocked for the first of many visits to come.
Postscript: Our wonderful Stephanie left us on Friday, April 1, 2022. She did not know her illness had returned with a hidden ferocity. Instead, two weeks before her death she skied with family and friends, more than 30 of them enjoying stellar conditions at Whistler. The pictures she sent from the peak speak to joy and the startling beauty of her surroundings.
Seven months have come and gone since we got the keys to the old homestead. Progress is steady, though painstaking, and the cozy coastal Christmas I imagined will have to wait a year.
A folk art pair of oxen seemed a fitting Christmas gift for Greg. So committed is he to the renovations yoke that the holidays barely came between him and hard labour.
Upstairs, the four bedrooms are blank canvases of wooden floors and plain plaster walls, stripped bare of all but the most resistant fragments of floral wallpaper. The only colour comes through the windows, a slice of blue sky or the weathered red of the barn.
Walls are framed up, bathrooms are plumbed, the back veranda is rebuilt to take best advantage of the water.
Downstairs, the dismantled walls and gutted kitchen have yielded no treasures save for a couple pieces of tarnished silverware, a tiny liniment bottle, scraps of a handwritten play from a long ago classroom, and a Prince Edward Island penny from 1871 – the sole year in which Canada’s tiniest province produced its own currency.
In the evenings, Greg rolls home to Halifax dusty and generally pleased with his mostly one-man mission to rescue the little house from the rough passage of time. Fierce winter weather has made a first, albeit brief, visit, whipping wind and snow around our little house and skimming over the inlet with ice. A sound furnace and a brisk pace will ward off the cold until the work is done, hopefully before the buds are back on the trees.
As we prepare to say good-bye to 2016 (which, frankly, ought to kicked to the world’s curb) I will recall it too as the year we fell hard for a blue house with a red barn and the hope it holds for the future. Happy New Year.
Winter is flexing its muscle a little earlier than usual in Nova Scotia, already covering the long back yard of the old place with snow. Greg arrived home from last weekend’s renovation efforts to report there is ice on the inlet, something we had not expected to see before January.
This seems a fitting end to 2016, a year that has left the world a colder place, tilting toward fear and protectionism. With this hibernation of hope it is tempting to pull inward, to settle ourselves on this small plot of land, perhaps take our cue from a transferware cup I spotted recently in an antique store:
“Let the wealthy and great
Roll in splendour and state
I envy them not I declare it
Eat my own lamb
My own chickens and ham
I shear my own fleece and I wear it
I have lawns I have bowers
I have fruits I have flowers
The lark is my morning alarmer
So jolly boys now
Here God speed the plough
Long life and success to the farmer.”
Quaint though the cup makes it sound, we’re not naive enough to pack up two teenagers for a life of subsistence farming.
Instead we will trust that seasons will change and nature, human and otherwise, will find a way of redeeming itself.
Off in the inlet, there remains a long cut of open water, a channel that runs clear and cold as everything around it freezes into stillness. Ice may well stretch across it in the bitterest days of winter, but below the surface the water will flow, resistant, forceful, and waiting.
When the warmth returns, as it is bound to do, we will lower kayaks into the water and paddle toward the channel. Its current will carry us from our sheltered inlet, under the little bridge at the roadway, to the vast, restorative Atlantic.
Today did not dawn, it crept in with a muzzy-headed, blurry-eyed fashion some time between a final disbelieving 2 a.m. check of the iPad and the unwanted buzz of the alarm.
Kip was scratching to be liberated from the bedroom where Faye, 14, lay under the usual lump of bedclothes, oblivious to the dog and the new political realities waiting to twist their way into her consciousness. For another hour she could snooze believing that Hillary had made history and given the lie to an ugly campaign that demeaned women and anyone who strayed from Trump’s perversion of normal.
Coffee, though welcome, provided no clarity. The Facebook feed filled up fast with the stunned realizations of those who had slept through Michigan and Pennsylvania, who hadn’t witnessed the tell-all crumbling of the rust belt states and the collapse of the so-called blue wall. Attempts at humour fell flat, displaced by outrage that a lifelong grifter and misogynist had stoked a simmering electorate resentment into a blazing path to the White House.
Morning pressed on. At 7:30, I nudged Faye awake.
“That’s not true.”
“It is. I’m sorry.”
Routine took over – Rice Crispies, a shower, getting dressed for work and school. Faye fretted about being late as she fiddled with mascara she has only recently deemed essential.
The first day in this strange new world order is nearly done. The ceiling is made of glass; we are not. Perhaps sleep will come easier tonight.
This weekend we will take a break from the blue house to raise a pint or a few to the past and pending 50th birthdays of ourselves and our friends. We are sharing the occasion with three couples at a massive rental house much younger than any of us.
Other than its waterside location, the “land yacht” as its owners call it, is the antithesis of our Lunenburg County “project” Perched over the ocean, with its own indoor pool, the grand house with soaring ceilings will no doubt make for a memorable weekend. As happy as we are to mark the occasion, I know a part of Greg will be further down the shore, thinking he could have had time to get the beadboard on the kitchen ceiling.
Things are most certainly coming along at the old place. The wan blue of the house has been banished by a shade known simply, and aptly, as “sapphire.” A bright white coats the barn doors again. Inside, we now have two bathrooms with walls, though no doors.
Thankfully, the weather has cooperated. It has been a spectacular fall, warmer than usual, with yellow, orange and red leaves burning against the clear blue of the sky and illuminating the roadway to the South Shore.
Nature’s fleeting third season in Nova Scotia creates an imperative to take in the near-startling beauty of every colourful display, an urgency to absorb the last bare-arms warmth from the retreating sun.
Our group of eight friends is likewise entering its third season. We have gone from flats and first houses, to marriages, newborns, and teenagers. Together, we seem determined to enjoy fall, to burn as bright as we can for as long as it lasts.
Decades from the milestone we toast this weekend, I hope we are together still – perhaps in a more humble blue house with a red barn – to share the beauty of winter.
An unusually hot, dry Nova Scotia summer that exhausted many wells and exposed riverbeds for the first time in decades has started to give way to the clear, cool mornings of September and the renewed sense of purpose fall brings.
At our old place, July and August proved productive. All of the demolition and stripping out is done, new bathrooms are going in, and new kitchen windows and wide garden doors now take full advantage of the inlet view.
Greg is the workhorse; I am the purveyor of lunch and dispenser of ideas. Together, we have seen a full season through at the blue house with the red barn and it feels right. We have almost accepted the stubborn slope of the floors in some spots, and we have discovered that shiplap is an excellent foil for unforgiving walls.
The apple and pear trees so dense with blossoms in May produced an abundance of small and spotty fruit, nothing worth presenting in a pie or preserving in a mason jar (were we skilled in such arts). From one weekend to the next, every pitiful pear along with most of the fallen apples that dotted the yellowing grass have disappeared – an imperfect bounty for birds and deer.
Behind the barn, the squirrels have started stockpiling stubby pinecones, hundreds of them, with a seeming foreknowledge of a harsh winter ahead. One brazen squirrel has taken to chattering angrily at us from the barn’s rafters, as if to put us on notice that he intends to make it his own again soon.
As we soldier on into fall, this small patch of earth, its humble house and sturdy barn, offers to sustain us all.
Greg and I have a bad way of falling for old things. Anyone who has experienced the basement of our Halifax home knows it to be a reliquary of mismatched chairs, vintage scales, chrome barware, a 1977 Bally Eight Ball pinball machine (that works about half the time) and odds and sods to which one or the other of us has formed an attachment.
Shortly after we bought our first house, Greg spied a cool old pharmacy cabinet among an auction lot from a former military base hospital. His $150 bid scored us the white metal cabinet along with a pallet-load of gear that included an outmoded EKG machine, a blood gas analyser and an ophthalmologist’s chair.
The new property may well be the ultimate extension of many years spent rescuing dubious treasures from junk shops and flea markets. Or perhaps it is simply a place to keep them.
When we first saw the blue house it was sad and empty, the only signs of life a few groceries left behind in the pantry. The home’s previous contents were piled high in the barn, awaiting an auction that must have been terribly difficult for the former owner who had collected in staggering quantities.
The scale of her efforts aside, she was probably not so unlike us, imaging the possibilities of a different life in a little seaside house surrounded by totemic pieces of the past.
In the three months before we took possession of the place, Greg and I devoted an inordinate amount of time to searching out the items that would fill the house up again. Our criteria were twofold: character-rich and budget-friendly.
Among the first finds was a fat, round wooden gear cast, once used to shape foundry molds for molten metal. Greg had no sooner pictured it on the wall of the new living room than it was in the back of his pick-up. An oar with a leather-wrapped handle also met our loose criteria, as did a two-pronged fish fork of the sort Greg’s grandfather once used to unload cod from a Newfoundland fishing boat.