Friday, February 1, 2008

the Bob Vila gene

We inherit a lot from our parents. Some of these things are apparent immediately; hair and eye color, skin tone, weird genetic mutations if your parents happen to be relatives. But a lot of our hereditary inheritance takes its time to become known. I for one, never imagined that I would become a fixer upper lover, a Home Depot-ite if you will. But I should have known. It was in the cards all along.
I have never lived in a new house, not even a relatively new house. The "youngest" house I have ever lived in was very early 20th century place just across the river from downtown Richmond. From there my family moved to an 1830s Midlothian farmhouse, then on to a late 19th century Fan townhouse. My Richmond houses were always in a state of transition. It seemed there was always a project or renovation going on during my formative years. I grew up in the midst of fresh paint, varnish, caulk, and four by fours. The idea that a house can be done is just not something I really understand. For my parents, there was always something to be fixed (usually faulty plumbing or heating, one of the lovely quirks of old houses), something to be restored (gorgeous hardwood floors are yet another lovely quirk of old homes), something to be modernized (there weren't a lot of walk in showers in the 19th century, go figure). I can distinctly remember my mother complaining at my Midlothian house, that it was a never ending project. She would watch her HGTV and read home and garden magazines, but I never really thought she enjoyed any of it. I assumed my parents were working to an end point, a finish. But then when we moved out of that house, my parents chose yet another once elegant but a little rough and fading around the edges, very old house. I don't think we ever even looked at any home that could be considered modern. No stainless steel kitchens for this family, or massive bathrooms adjoining carpeted master suits. Once again my parents were drawn to crooked staircases, dusty radiators and tiny powder rooms. And once again the renovations began. We've been in that house eight years and in that time my parents have redone the kitchen, the front porch, the entire outside of the house, dozens of lighting fixtures, tiling in the bathrooms, and new paint jobs for every single room. And that's just to name a few projects. But that doesn't even begin to suggest the countless hours spent reupholstering, refinishing, rearranging, and redecorating. And I've watched this all with a sometimes detached eye, helping sometimes, complementing occasionally. But I've never really taken a role in their fix up frenzy. It was just another weird aspect of my parents, with weekly trips to Pleasants (that's the local equivalent to Lowe's for all you non-Richmonders) and HGTV always on when my mom was in the room. I've gone with my mom to open houses in the neighborhood to get pointers on their furnishings or decorations. My mom combs estate sales for beat up old pieces that she will then work tirelessly to restore to their former glory. And to be honest, there was a point when I might have rolled my eyes at this behavior. I used to visit friends' houses in modern subdivisions and be slightly envious. Everything was new, everything was shiny and efficient, from the trash compactors to the showers bigger than most bedrooms. I even loved the unfamiliar look of carpet from wall to wall, remembering with a shudder all of the splinters I incurred running on wooden floors at my house. Here were windows that actually sealed tight instead of letting in alternately frigid or steamy air depending on the seasons. Here was a central heating system instead of the massive radiator in my room that could instantly turn the room into a sauna. I would return to my house, with the sound of hammering or sawing in the air, and wonder how nice it might be to for once live in a new house, one that was finished.
But all of that changed. Maybe it was growing up. Maybe it was going to college. But I think more likely, it was that I began to realize that for better of for worse, the love of old houses with all of their flaws and cracks and failings, was part of who I was. I was born with it, and I certainly grew up surrounded by it. And even without choice, I seem to be drawn to all things and places old. I lived in a 19th century apartment building in Paris, straight out of any text book about Haussmann. And then, perhaps most serendipitously of all, I found my little blue house in Charleston. Okay, so maybe not so serendipitously considering one of my good friends already lived here, but still I feel like it was fate. My current abode, like most things in Charleston, simply oozes age. It was built as a single family home in the 1820s, and even though it's been changed to two apartments and modernized in a lot of ways, the age of the place is everywhere. It's in the slightly rotting side porch that is still perfectly suitable for dusk time reading. There's the slanted wooden floors full of pock marks and stains. The fireplaces have sadly been covered up by ugly stucco but their presence is still there, remnants of a time before electric heat. I love my little apartment, and even though I rant and rave at the bugs that creep through the holes and cracks, shiver through the rare cold nights, try not to hit my head in the tiny bathroom, and dry out my hands washing all of our dishes minus a dishwasher, I can't imagine living anywhere sleek and polished. And without even realizing, I've started creating "projects". I lived here peacefully for a few months, happy not to make changes, but the longer I've been here and the more it feels like home, the more my inner desire for home improvement kicks in. It started with a new kitchen island, then a new shelf in the kitchen, and since then a week has rarely gone by where some idea hasn't crossed my mind. I have to avoid the home department in Target. Trips to Ikea are like torture, because in all of their put together sample rooms, I see capital I, ideas for the apartment. As a renter I have to hold myself back, but if I owned the apartment (and had an income of my own), I can't even imagine the projects I would plan. I guess the reality is that I am my parents' daughter. I love the challenge of old houses, how to improve them in a way that lets their true selves shine, rather than remaking them in the image of something showroom pretty and soulless.
I love knowing a house has a past. I think it's the southerner in me, the daughter of southerners, and the granddaughter of southerners. But I simply can't find solid ground unless
I know there are layers of history beneath it. I am doomed to spend my life fixing decrepit plumbing and heating systems and shivering with the drafts that come effortlessly through old windows. I will always fall in love with gorgeous old wardrobes and desks that have sat forgotten in consignment or antique shops but which with a little bit of work, can once again be the center of attention in a room. And I will spend a lifetime getting to know the old homes I will undoubtedly keep living in, softening rough edges and restoring former glories, happy to be one tiny part in a history far longer than my own.

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