Of patience and butterflies

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.

Shaune and Beth
Beth (left) and me, two decades of friendship

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.

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.



Stripping paper, and other fun times

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.

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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Some things simply don’t keep

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.

Bottles, glass, and crockery from the shoreline

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.








Giving up its past, one layer at a time

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.



A fresh start

Meet our new, old house,  an East Coast Canada fixer-upper on one and a half acres complete with barn and a couple of small outbuildings. We hope this will be a labour of love but we are bracing ourselves for the unwelcome surprises and hidden costs that come with long-neglected centenarian houses. When the going gets tough we will look to the water and remind ourselves that our view stretches beyond this pretty Nova Scotia inlet to the times when we will welcome friends and visitors to our Blue House, Red Barn home.

You’re welcome to join us on this renovation journey. We promise to share all of the tribulations and triumphs, our best ideas and our god-awful ones, our inspiration and our frustration.



And so it began…

I knew Greg loved this property from the slow way he walked its one and a half acres, around the sturdy post-and-beam barn in need of a fresh red paint job, beyond the traditionally simple Lunenburg four-square house, and down the gentle slope to the salt water below.

We strode through unmown grass, fading to yellow in the cool November temperatures, kicked at the apples that lay rotting on the ground, an offering left behind by  deer that had clearly become regulars. The old homestead  did not offer the rugged shoreline that is Nova Scotia’s hallmark but rather a gentler take on the East Coast – a shallow inlet, dotted with islands, beautifully still, with water the colour of steel. Read More