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.Read More...
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.
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.
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.
My wise and wonderful friend Beth has been with me since the days before houses, husbands and kids. She regularly offers up witticisms and simple truths about the winding paths of our lives and the people with whom we share the journey.
When we bought the blue house with the red barn Beth shared in our excitement. She understood I saw the property as a place to relax into a life that is often more hectic than we imagined, an opportunity to spend real time with friends and family, particularly our two girls, Faye and Charlotte.
Every parent of a teenager knows the quickening pace of the years, the tiny beautiful and heart-seering milestones that mark the passage out of childhood. The eye rolls, exasperated sighs, and teenage ennui. No pretty little house with a water view is likely to change that for the time being.
At 17, Charlotte is the more restless of the two, anxious to finish high school and chart a life that takes her beyond the city of her birth and the confines of her family. She has always possessed a uniquely Charlotte perspective, the workings of her busy mind kept mostly to herself or shared sparingly with a wry humour beyond her years.
It was Beth who long ago characterized her better than I could. Charlotte is like a butterfly, she said, if you stay very still eventually she will alight. And it will be worth it.
I have no illusions that Charlotte will spend much time at the new/old place, at least not for the foreseeable future. But I will be here, patient and still, waiting for her to land.
Canada Day, July 1, 8 a.m. and the thermometer was already promising a rare blast of early summer heat. Greg and I were committed to the cause at the old place, him framing up new walls, me stripping away decades of floral wallpaper.
Our youngest Faye, 14, was on-board for the day’s activities, eager to earn a few bucks from her folks. An energetic, athletic kid, she could be a great help with this house venture were she more inclined for work than fun.
With the close of the school year, Faye’s social calendar is packed with hang-outs, sleepovers, swimming and movies. Our time with her is now at a premium, so it seemed logical to offer her a minimum hourly rate for her efforts at the fixer upper.
Greg went on ahead as I roused Faye and our dog Kipper and we hopped in the car for the hour’s drive to the old place. We turned off Highway 103 and drove the few kilometres up and down hills, through green fields and shingled farmhouses to the now-familiar crossroads – a right to the house, straight into the town of Lunenburg, left to the fishing community of Blue Rocks.
It was a spectacular day, the blue of the sky and the green of the rolling landscape ending sharply at ocean’s edge. “Let’s check out Blue Rocks,” I said, as we turned left.
We made our way to the tiny community, past its wharves and stages to the rocky cove at its end. Our first stop was The Point General for chocolate mousse ice cream which we ate while we watched a kayaking tour group prepare for an outing. We strolled through the village, every small inlet a postcard for Nova Scotia, and I told Faye to remember this place wherever life takes her.
After Blue Rocks we cut back through Lunenburg, its waterfront and brightly-coloured shops already bustling with tourists and daytrippers, and headed along the Mason’s Beach Road, winding along the coastline to Route 332 and our place.
As we reached the turnoff though, it was clear that a girl and a dog would be happier on a beach. We kept going, on to Rose Bay and out to Hirtle’s Beach, a stretch of sand that seems impossible in the depths of a Nova Scotian winter. Faye and I walked the beach, watching Kip chase the waves and other dogs, then reluctantly turned back to take on our tasks that awaited us in the last hours of the day.
We got a couple of hours in, spraying the paper down with water, peeling and scraping to bare plaster. It was, at least, a start.
But, wallpaper can wait. Summer and my girl at 14, not so much.
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.
It’s been three weeks since we took possession of the blue house with the red barn and we’ve been hell bent on destruction – two overflowing 12-yard dumpsters a testament to our efforts, more Greg’s than mine. Visitors either commend our efforts or delicately ask if we know what we’re doing.
An old house demands decisions about what to keep and what to throw away. In some not too distant decade, bathroom fixtures the colour of Calamine lotion seemed a better use of space than a dining room – a choice probably made by someone acquainted with the outhouse. We have determined the kitchen should open to the front room, the living room doorway ought to be wider, and an upstairs wall must make way for a new bathroom. The cramped pantry, the worn out kitchen cupboards and the old bathroom have met an inglorious end piled high in the dumpster.
Some things, we know will remain: the hand-smoothed newel post and stair railings, the pretty window trim, the bedroom floorboards long buried by lino and shag carpet.
We ended Sunday’s work day each on our own clean-up detail. Me, with a rake at the shoreline, combing through dried seaweed in search of glass and other detritus that had been discarded by people now also gone. Greg put a few old things roadside for the garbage truck but a woman driving by saw something to love in the peeling pink and red paint of an old door, and a man in a pick-up backed up to grab an old glass jug with a chipped lip. It would, he said, look nice on his table.
The last thing to go was the chipboard walls of a makeshift cold cellar in a corner of the stone basement. Behind it were 10 jars of largely unrecognizable contents, a few pickles poking out of their evaporated brine, some sludgy dark substances someone foolishly thought would last in a Cheez Whiz jar, and fruit they couldn’t bear to lose with summer’s end.
We tipped them all into the dumpster. Some things simply don’t keep.
Our new/old house hides its stories well, inside its old pantry, under layers of flowered wallpaper, and beneath the tired shag carpets and patterned linoleum that cover its softwood plank floors. This house was always loved, it seems, not for its fine qualities but for its service to the family who called it home – from the time of its late 19th Century construction until more recent years when it reluctantly left the hands of the builder’s descendants to be watched over from newer homes close by.
It is a simple, sturdy house with four tight bedrooms, two small front rooms and a woefully outdated kitchen whose floor slopes noticeably toward the two chimneys that pierce the house’s centre: one chimney for the fireplace, the other for the furnace and a long ago kitchen stove. The blue house has stood these many years supported by beams that have grown a little weary of their load and will soon need modern intervention. Handrails on the sweet back porch threaten to give way with the slightest push, and there’s a hole to the basement where a leak under the ghastly pink bathtub was neglected.
In short, it is a house that needs significant attention and even more patience.
But, around the property spring is demonstrating the hardiness of the apple trees, a pear tree, a white lilac and a purple one – their blossoms crowding the air with the sweet promise of summer. It is an inspiring display of the resiliency and potential that resides in this property and – hopefully – in us. This will be a season of work for us as we peel back the layers of this lovely old place and make it our own.