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.

 

 

 

The channel

cropped-img_2613.jpgWinter 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.

 

The third season

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.dinner

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.

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 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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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.