Sweet surrender

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.

The space between

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.

 

 

 

A year in the life

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.

stephanie
Stephanie

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.

Steady on

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.

 

 

Sustenance

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.

The past life of things

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.

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Blue, the colour suits you

“Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways,”Oscar Wilde

Our old house is crying out for a fresh coat of paint, a visible indication of a new lease on life for a homestead that still looks a little forlorn.

The current powder blue has found a fan in Faye, our youngest, but I find it flat, insipid, a blue that gave up after not trying too hard in the first place. Maybe it couldn’t compete with the redness of the barn, the vibrant green of the grass or the complex, shifting blue-green of the inlet. Perhaps our house wanted to blend into the vast blueness of the sky but fell short, left hunkered on its stone foundation with a nothing-to-see-here-folks look.

So, the pale blue is going, but to be replaced with what? A new blue, that’s for certain. No other colour seems appropriate to our coastal location where longstanding residents still call themselves Bluenosers, an apparent holdover from the days when fishing crews risked frigid temperatures in pursuit of a big catch.Paint chips

This seemingly trivial colour decision has taken on momentous proportions of late. Blue carries so many connotations; it can be hopeful, calming, noble, whimsical, mysterious. Blue can be youthful or staid, bold or boring. Despite the endless array of choices, no house paint sufficiently captures the mercurial hues of the North Atlantic or the particular brilliance of a Nova Scotia winter sky against an expanse of snow.

Our little house deserves a blue of its own, something to make it stand out proudly in its surroundings. For now I am shuffling chips, vacillating between brights, lights and darks.

In the end, though, the only true blue criteria is a shade that says “Welcome home.”

A good man is hard to find

Among the pages of newspapers under the linoleum flooring of our old house were the pearls of wisdom from 1930s advice columnist Dorothy Dix. When a reader asked her to define a “nice boy,” Miss Dix did not equivocate:

“My idea of a ‘nice boy’ is one who is clean inside and out. He is a boy who thinks clean thoughts, who likes clean sports, who enjoys clean amusements, who reads clean books, and who prefers clean girls. The things that are filthy, spiritually and morally, are as disgusting to him as it would be breathe the air of a sewer or eat out a garbage can.”

A remarkably tall order for any boy, much less a man. By Dot’s estimation, my Greg would have been deeply inhaling sewer gases and gobbling garbage on occasion. But, partners in house projects and in life must accept the messiness of their undertaking, and imperfections in each other. We have been tested by frayed patience, short fuses, and the renovation bone-weariness that is a constant dull reminder we are not so young anymore.

The “project”, as my sister-in-law has dubbed our house venture, would have left me curled in a fetal position by now wondering what happened to my Pinterest dreams were it not for Greg. A civil engineer by training, he is a linear thinker and a logical doer. No problem evades Greg’s solution.FullSizeRender

He has put his strong back and able mind into the blue house, thinking and rethinking floor plans, meticulously plotting locations for light fixtures and switches, planning every inch of the kitchen and the bedeviling second bathroom we will squeeze under the eaves upstairs.

A new-to-us house is starting to emerge from the wreckage. For that I can thank the guy with the ragged work boots and the dirty jeans, the “nice boy” and the good man I met more than half a lifetime ago.

 

 

A horseshoe for luck

Last weekend Greg’s parents, Anne and Gray, stopped by the blue house and red barn to check on progress and deliver lunch. They are pretty taken with the old place though perhaps a little concerned with the scale of their son’s undertaking. So, it’s gratifying to know they see progress where they once saw problems.

Walls have been demolished so sunlight plays throughout the main floor all day; the worst of the crumbling, mildewed plaster is now gone, along with every scrap of carpet and linoleum – thanks in large measure to the able efforts of our friend Gregor and his teenage son Finn.

messy room
Evidence of good friends and hard work

 

Greg’s careful installation of new basement beams has eased the sag of the kitchen floor. Masking tape and figures scrawled on lath boards with carpenter’s pencil show the location of new bathroom fixtures, bigger kitchen windows and patio doors to the water. Read More

Running rum and renovating

In the spring of 1930, past owners of our old house readied to install boldly-patterned lino in large square sheets over the bedroom floorboards. In preparation, they laid down splayed pages of The Halifax Herald, Nova Scotia’s newspaper of record.

The Grey Lady of Argyle Street, as the Halifax Herald was known, was a true broadsheet – its tiny font typeset in dark ink to produce a paper densely packed with the goings on in Nova Scotia and further afield. By April 1930, the paper was already able to boast of its “Fifty-five years in the public service” –   the successful merger of the The Morning Herald and its competitor, The Chronicle.

April 7, 1930 was a big news day. A world away from Halifax, in Dandi, India Mahatma Gandhi had narrowly avoided arrest along with his followers in a protest over India’s salt manufacturing monopoly.

Closer to home, Captain Gerald Lewis blamed the U.S. Coastguard patrol ship Frederick Lee for the sinking of his Lunenburg-based schooner the Aramay. Laden with more than 700 crates of “choice liquors”, the Aramay was either deliberately sunk during seizure or sprung a leak while under Coast Guard tow outside of Boston. Captain Lewis, an unabashed rum-runner, demanded an inquiry and payment for his ship and its lost cargo.

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