We live in a very old house. No one seems to know exactly how old, even the public records. I recently had a conversation with my insurance person regarding this. You see, my house is not what insurance companies feel comfortable with, but it is okay, if you pay them more, they get over it pretty quickly. Although we only put in one claim in thirty years, I can hear them shudder when I call because they are basically pessimistic when it comes to 200-plus-year-old barns with imperfect flooring, horses and goats that spend their lives figuring out how to escape onto the road, the absence of sidewalks and fire hydrants, old trees close to the house, and, of course, they have read the blog so they know I am accident prone. I called my insurance person because we have an addition going up, basically doubling the size of the house, and I wanted to be sure we were covered over what has turned out to be (no surprise) a very protracted construction period.
She says (after taking a swig of gin or whatever she keeps on hand for my phone calls), “What can I do for you, Rodeo?”
I say, “I need to make sure I have coverage for this addition – remember we talked about it?”
She says, “Let me pull up your account.” I know she’s got it in a bookmarked file on her computer, marked with a skull and cross bones, so it takes her no time at all.
“Now,” she says, after another swig, “Your original house is what? Sixty years old?”
“Noooooo ... it’s like 160.” I am patient. “The house you can see above the ground we think was built around 1876? Remember? There is a plaque on the wall in the stucco?”
“Stucco,” she’s starting to remember.
“And, remember, there is a house under the house that predates 1790? The part with the dirt basement?” I hear her choke down some more gin.
“And remember, we talked about why it says sixty in the public records? Because when we got canceled by the old insurance company, you looked it up and it said sixty? That was in 2000, and we figured that was when the Rural Electrification Program came through and we got electric, and the house then showed up as having been renovated, and the Simpsons who owned it then put the apartment in because Mr. Simpson had his knees broken by that bull and they hired a farm manager?”
“Riiiiiiggghhhhtttt.” I’m losing her.
“No, no – you remember this, because you made the same noise then. Really, we brought the title search in from when we bought the house and you made copies, and it does indeed say the house, at least the part we live in now, was built in 1876. So that makes it ... sort of 120. But we know it’s a lot older. Because of the house underneath. We went to the Courthouse and we have records that some squatter named John Alford lived here long enough before 1790 that he got the land from the new government, when they seized the land from the Penns? And now, we are building this beautiful addition – and we modernized everything, got a new metal roof, and a new septic, and well – well for water, not well, like I’m finished speaking well.”
I realize that none of this is important in the context of our conversation, except that it makes me sound like I am pathetically trying to get her to like my house. We finally do get down to discussing coverage and get that all straightened out, but I wonder if, in the future, some record will say the house was built in 2009.
And I start thinking about value. This is the second house Charles and I bought together. The first one was our “smart decision” house. It was brand new, in a first time home buyer’s neighborhood – a little three bedroom ranch house at the end of a cul de sac, with lots of kids in the neighborhood. The $300.00 mortgage payment, which included taxes and insurance, kept us awake at night – 17 percent interest! But we knew it was better than that $150.00 a month rent we had been paying. It was perfect, but I was never really at peace there. Charles was working on it all the time, tweaking that perfection: he put in hardwood floors (the only house in the neighborhood to have them), a beautiful gourmet kitchen with a state of the art microwave oven/stove combo (again, only house in the neighborhood to have one), brick pathways and an over engineered fence to keep our two dogs in. Meanwhile I died a little inside each day from boredom with the Tupperware parties and Creative Plaything parties, and just ... two ... dogs. Only thing was, our son was deliriously happy.
So when I found this neglected but graceful farmette, not three miles from our present house, I went about convincing them both that this was also a “smart decision” house. I told Charles that if he was going to work on something all the time, it ought to make a difference! He could restore this house and never ever run out of projects! (I am a SERIOUSLY good closer.) It took about six weeks of driving past every day for him to see the possibilities, but also it had a caveat: it was CHEAP but had almost 8 acres! He would be a LANDOWNER. He would have more ground than his brothers and sisters PUT TOGETHER, and that was very important cred for the middle child of ten. Also, he could have a big tractor. That sealed the deal.
My son was another matter. At eleven, the last thing he wanted to do was move away from his friends. We would be changing school districts. He looked at the no sidewalks/no pavement situation and asked plaintively, “Where will I ride my bike?” I explained he could have a DIRT BIKE. He said, “I have a dirt bike now.” Which he did, but we had to load it in the car and drive to a place he could ride it. I said, “You can get up every morning and just ride right in your own backyard. Let’s take a walk, and I’ll show you what I mean.” We climbed through the fence, into the pasture, weeds over our heads, gnats buzzing around our noses. He’s skeptical. We walk and walk and I show him the barn full of weird scrap metal things, the huge rock in the field perfect for a fort. We actually get winded, fighting our way to the rear property line. I turn him around and say, look – all the way up there – that would be our house! And then ... I see something in the grass, half buried in the ground.
Pushing his head down for a closer look, I say, “Look! Every day we can come out here and find interesting things like this! It’s an odd plant! We can come back every day and see what it grows in to! Some unusual pretty flower maybe!”
He shrugs me off. “Those are plastic grapes, Mom. Some old country person came out here and dropped their plastic grapes.”
Okay, so he was right, and like most conversations that follow this, things are never as good as I think or as bad as my husband and son think. But he has no choice, we move, and after years that fly past in the blink of an eye, he’s moving in again, with his children and wife because it’s the best place in the world and I can’t stay here by myself.
But it is an old house, and when you live in an old house, people always ask you the same question: “Did you find anything valuable? Did you find buried boxes of silverware or cash? Did you find hidden antiques? Treasures?”
I got a metal detector once and within feet of the kitchen door, it started to click. I got a shovel, dug down and found a metal filter from a coffee percolator. I found what appears to be an entire tractor buried behind the barn. I have found shards of pottery and lots and lots of Schlitz beer bottles hidden beneath trees and in the eaves of the barn (someone seems to have had a problem). We have found big and small horse shoes, strap hinges three feet long, and lengths of chain.
Once, while facing the fireplace in the basement, I impulsively reached up into the beams and found ancient hairpins and a comb. In a moment transcending time and space, I knew a woman had stood where I stood and let her hair down in the evening. And for a reason I will never know, never put it up again.
When we removed the mantle piece in the living room, a 1960s dog license fluttered to the floor. My son found an unusual blue marble deep in the foundation. He handed it to me and in minutes I found a Marble Guy on the internet, sent him pictures and was informed it was a regular old marble. Well, except that it was OUR old marble.
But no coins, silver or anything of real value (which means, worth money).
What we didn’t find, and couldn’t, was the real stuff. Like the reason that woman never put her hair up again. The first cries of the babies born here. The last sighs of those who died. The stuff that life is made of is in the air we breathe here, not in the ground or in the walls, and can’t be sold on eBay. It’s what we will leave behind when we go.