… on old houses not quite empty

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen one impulsively purchases an old house, the feeling of elation is quickly followed (and when I say ‘quickly’, I mean specifically the amount of time between agreeing to buy the house and meeting a stranger in the driveway who is there to “inspect” the house for your benefit (no) and the bank’s (yes)) by a reality-infused gulp (or snort, if you are me).

But when you impulsively purchase a very old house, sometimes you want to get two inspectors. One who is there to make the bank happy, and one who is there to make sure you know what you are buying into – someone who is familiar not just with current electrical, roofing, and foundation codes (as well as overall safety and the ability to detect deadly mold, poisonous asbestos, and the potential of a nesting red squirrel before he ever sets foot in your walls), but who is also familiar with how old houses are built. This way when you say the word, ‘renovation’, he can quickly correct you with ‘restoration’.  And this is how we met Les Fossel. Who went on from inspecting – and then helping us to restore – our newly purchased house, to being elected to Congress for the great state of Maine. ‘Les is More’ was his slogan. And no, I didn’t make that up.

So before he was a state congressman, Les Fossil ran a company called Restoration Resources and he, along with his amazing crew, knew an awful lot about old houses. We met Les at our house, shortly after agreeing to buy it but before the bank agreed to let us, and wandered around behind him with a clipboard noting nearly everything he said. We found out that many things we thought were fine – old electrical system, plumbing, giant chestnut beam in basement sliced in half in order to get furnace in place before house could be sold – were, indeed not fine. But, on the good side, things we thought spelled trouble – river running through basement during spring – were, in fact, good (turns out you want the river to run right through, not stay stagnant. This was the coast of Maine, after all.) Who knew?

Les Fossel even helped us to date our old house, which helped enormously because the deed paperwork only went back so far. He looked at many things, from original moldings, inside and out, to the granite foundation, to the height of the ceilings and pronounced that it was probably built some time around 1830, maybe in the decade before. He explained that we had both Federal and Greek Revival original elements and it was all Greek to us (and not just because of the Revival elements). And he pronounced that the house had “good bones”, so we thanked him and took his card and info (and boy did we need it later on).

Even though Les encouraged us to live in the house for a few years before we did anything major to it, we pretty much knew after one year that we needed to do a few things – like replace the entire electrical system – because our children would probably prefer not to die in a house fire…Oh!…and because we’d had to shut down the entire electrical system in the barn or the bank wouldn’t give us a mortgage.  Also, that afore mentioned beam that was cut in the basement in order to allow the former owners to fit the furnace down there? It was causing our kitchen floor to list dangerously and was going to lead to it falling into the basement. Probably the refrigerator first, followed by my nearly perfect husband who would be getting his nightly ice cream at the time (more on John’s ice cream habits at a later date). Regardless, someone was going to get hurt.

So, here’s how it went:

Me: “We need to call Les.”

John: “Okay, so it’s just to fix the electrical and the beam.”

Me: “And probably the plumbing and I want to move that wall.”

John: “Okay, so that wall and the plumbing and the electrical and the beam.”

Me: “Probably.”

Six months later:

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So Les’ crew worked tirelessly (not really, I think we made them very tired) and deconstructed and then reconstructed major portions of the house and barn on the way to them being the two solid structures they are today. Along the way we found some pretty cool artifacts – from old newspapers to glass bottles to children’s items including old shoes. We placed the old shoes on the mantle for just long enough for someone to point out that it was bad luck to remove old shoes found in the walls of old houses. John didn’t know that little tidbit for ten minutes before he was stuffing those shoes back into an open wall and encouraging the plaster guys to seal them back up right away. My nearly perfect husband takes these things very seriously. With uncertain feelings on alien visitation and abduction, demon possession, and out of body experiences, John spared no time protecting his family. He was not about to be messed with by pissed off, shoeless children from the early 1800s.

So we would schedule Les and his crew to work from about mid-September through mid-May so as not to disturb the summers of our neighbors. This also allowed us to come up after school got out at the end of June and spend most of our summers here during the restoration process. And it allowed us to get used to the house. Which was an interesting process. Emphasis on interesting (italicized for even more added emphasis (this could go on all day).

During the first summer, the interesting tidbits were mainly chalked up to the fritzy electrical system. It was old knob and tube wiring and the kids got the worst of it. Their rooms were in the attic, which – because this had been an inn a long time ago – housed the old inn workers’ quarters. There were three rooms up there, one for each kid, but one of them was never occupied. Why? Because youngest-and-self-proclaimed-perfect-child, Gabe had seen the movie, Salem’s Lot, shortly before he came up to Maine for the first time. Ever see it?

Synopsis: Vampires.

Synopsis according to Gabe: Creepy kid vampires hovering outside your bedroom window, scratching to get in.

I remember walking the three kids up to the third floor. There were three bedrooms in a row. In the first, Sam (who was 11 at the time) dropped his bag and went in and bounced on his new bed. Fine. The second, middle room, was for 7 year-old Gabe. He took one look into an admittedly dimly-lit room, saw the bed pushed up against the single double hung window with the tree branch scraping it (not kidding again), reached into the room, dropped his bag, and never set foot in that room again. Ever.

He slept with big sister Mackenzie in the last bedroom. But. On nights that the lights would be acting all funky – which usually resulted in Mac’s room shorting out – we would hear two blood curdling screams, hear stomping all the way down the hall above us, and find them all in Sam’s room the next morning. Eventually, they all decided that Sam’s closet was too dark and too deep so they all relocated into Mac’s room, using their mattresses to create a “mega-bed” (their word, not mine and – I checked – not found on Wikipedia) and I guess Sam was the muscle if the lights went out in that room after that. The kids, who had just finished watching the Buffy the Vampire series spin-off Angel, nicknamed the electrical system eccentricities  ‘Dennis’, after the ghost that haunted Cordelia’s apartment. That summer, shrieks of “Dennis!” or discussions about him were commonplace. Our friends and neighbors would even all ask about Dennis. Too funny.

But, in reality, Dennis was really a wiring issue. Weird sounds were attributed to old plumbing. Odd howls to the wind off the water. I should emphasize here that I am a fairly sensitive individual. I mean that more in the sense of ‘I pick up on things’ vs. ‘my feelings get hurt easily’. And I think I would know if this was a creepy, scary place.  John – who  would have been gone at the first “Get Out!” – even asked me if I got any weird vibes from the house before we bought it, and I didn’t. It felt warm and welcoming from the second we walked in. I attributed this to Mr. Walbridge, who was the man who had lived here for 45 years before he passed away. The house was then sold to a couple that flipped houses for a living. Who – judging by the prolific use of chintz and floral patterns, along with cherub encrusted dark furniture, and a life-sized replica of a merry-go-round horse in the dining room – believed that this house screamed for Victorian era funeral parlor decor with a splash of carnival.  Clearly, they also leaned toward eccentric engineering choices that eventually resulted in kitchens falling into basements.

Different strokes for different folks.

So I chalked the great feeling of the house up to Mr. Walbridge. And, as we met the neighbors, it seemed my initial feeling about Mr. Walbridge was correct. He was described as a great person. An elderly Yankee man with a wicked, dry sense of humor. Just my type. So after we got the electrical system entirely replaced and were up here enjoying our new, reliable wall switches and lamps (and had assurances from the electrician that all was in working order) when the lights would flicker for seemingly no reason, we weren’t concerned, but continued to blame Dennis. Which I think may have been giving credit where credit wasn’t due.

I bought the first kitchen clock from Target, and it stopped working a day or so after I put it up on the wall. I changed batteries and checked the cheap mechanism and it was dead. Bummer. But it was only ten bucks.  I made a mental note to get another kitchen clock the next time I was in a place that sold them.

When I was next at Homegoods, I hit the mother load. I got a new kitchen clock – a nicer one – along with cool little clocks for the bedside in each bedroom, including ours. The one beside our bed, on my side, died within two days of my putting it there. John’s a day or so later. Damn.

About a week later, I grabbed an extra little one that I’d left downstairs on a bookshelf, and brought it upstairs. I knew that one was okay, because it had been working fine for the past week. By the next morning it was dead. I checked the battery, replaced it, shook it up and down and all the other super technical things I knew to do. Dead.

By this time, the new kitchen clock was also dead. And when I took it off the wall to check it, I took the week-old battery out of it’s area and the entire plastic battery holding and time changing thingie literally crumbled into pieces and fell on the floor. Jesus.

A couple of weeks later, I went to my favorite furniture outlet store and saw a great reproduction clock that I thought would be perfect for the living room. I also picked up a brand new clock for the kitchen that week, from Homegoods. This one was a great brand (and it was bronze and pretty) so I figured I could count on it. I was not going to suffer cheap clocks any more.

When that last Homegoods clock died, about a week after we got it, I gave up and just left it on the wall. Then the one from the furniture store, which I’d hung in the living room, stopped working. And it was then that I noticed the time on the living room clock. 10:34. And I made John go get the ones from upstairs, beside the beds. They had all stopped between 10:25 and 10:35. Kitchen? 10:28.

Wild right?

Absolutely true.

So I was outside talking to my neighbors, Bud and Judy a few days later. They were both approaching their eighties and had known Mr. Walbridge and his wife for years. Bud was teaching me how to use a homemade tool to rid our trees from harmful caterpillar nests. And in the midst of our conversation and caterpillar extermination, Judy asked me if there was anything interesting going on in the house. Interesting question. I asked why she asked. She said that Estelle, Mr. Walbridge’s wife, used to say that they would misplace things periodically and blame each other, and inevitably they would find those things in the attic, even though they didn’t store anything in the attic and didn’t use the rooms up there.  Great.

We hadn’t had anything happen like that, but her mention of it prompted me to share the story of the clocks. Judy said that she felt goose bumps on her arms. I thought I felt at least one on mine. Or a hive. Or maybe a mosquito. I wasn’t sure.

So we took two of the clocks from upstairs and put them, still broken, on one of the bookshelves downstairs (I left mine where it was, I don’t know why), and we left the kitchen and living room clocks where they were and a few more days went by, and I found that I needed a few things down at the local hardware store.

As I was heading out to the car, Judy came running from next door, calling to me. I’m not kidding, I actually ran to her because I thought she was going to trip and fall. And she was so happy that she’d caught me because she was talking to Anita down the other end of the road (Miss Anita was in her eighties at the time) and she shared my story of the clocks.

And Anita reminded her that Mr. Walbridge fixed clocks as a hobby after he retired.

So when I came home, I did something I never thought I’d do. I had a nice talk with Mr. Walbridge. Okay, it was one way, but I did it anyway. I apologized for calling him Dennis. I told him we were so happy to live in his house, and that I hoped he liked the things we were doing to it. I told him I loved that he was watching over it still, and told him he was free to go or stay.

Each clock is still where it was that day. At exactly the time it was on that day (the kids say it’s bad luck to change the time, and they yell and scream if anyone tries). The living room is at 10:34, the kitchen at 10:33, one of the former upstairs bedside clocks is at 10:29 and the other stopped at 10:26.  We use our phones, watches, and/or the stove and microwave clocks in this house. The rest are merely decoration.

Periodically a light flickers when it doesn’t seem that it should, and the television in our bedroom tends to go on by itself every once and a while. One of us just goes upstairs and shuts it off. And each time something like this happens, one or more of us says hello to Mr. Walbridge. Sure, it’s a little tongue in cheek, but it’s also a nice tradition and oddly makes the house seem a little more ours, or at least solidly in our stewardship. It really is a warm, welcoming house. I love it here, and feel completely comfortable, even when I’m here alone.

But we did get the message.  We aren’t replacing the clocks.

Because, who knows, maybe Mr. Walbridge will fix them someday.

 Thanks for readin’.

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