Discovering History in an 1810 Colonial

Even before we moved in, I was haunted by our house. I was a relatively young first-time buyer and the 1810 Colonial seemed very, very old.

Even before we moved in, I was haunted by our house. I was a relatively young first-time buyer and the 1810 Colonial seemed very, very old. The price we offered was several thousand dollars above our sworn ceiling. The neighborhood, while congenial, was a tad more settled than I was feeling at the time.

But none of that spooked me as much as Marianne, the owner. A striking, white-haired, dignified lady in her mid-70s, she had proudly greeted us at the door the day we came to look. To the obvious annoyance of the real estate agent, lurking a few steps back, Marianne was evidently intent on accompanying us every step of the way. “This,” Marianne said, ushering us into a high-ceilinged room off the front hallway, “was my husband’s office. How he loved working in here!” The commandingly stylish agent tried to assert herself. “It could make a super playroom. For the kids.” Her emphasis on this last word was made in obvious hope that Marianne would get the message, which of course was that Marianne’s husband was dead, her children were grown, and her once vital role in the unfolding lives of a family was down to a whisper.

Our tour resumed, with Marianne in the lead. She drew our attention to the sunlit living room where, she noted, her daughters had the habit of curling before the fireplace on long winter afternoons. “How long have you lived here?” I asked. “Forty years.” I slumped against the wall, feeling short of breath and claustrophobic. Forty years hence this could be me—or more likely, my wife—and it would all have vanished. Our bounteous future would have drained into the receding past. Our two boys, now just 4 and 5, would be far away, calling on Sundays if we were very lucky.

To escape this onset of sorrow, I asked to see the basement. I’m no Mr. Fix-it, but I’d been briefed that basements were somehow important. We opened the cellar door. There, etched onto the frame, was a column of notches ascending like ladder rungs: Chris, 1968. Alice, 1970. And so on, topping off at about 5’4″ in 1982. Oh yes, at the bottom was “dog,” measuring a bit over 2 1/2′. Did the girls grow no taller? Or was 1982 the year when each small increment ceased to matter? When, I worried, would that dread year arrive for my family?

The closing was held in the conference room of a small law office. Marianne was seated stiffly, stoically, with her lawyer. The mortgaging bank’s attorney was present, as were my wife and I, plus our lawyer. The table was cluttered with piles of documents. Our attorney, an affable fellow who had three other closings that day, swiftly perused each pile, mumbling an occasional comment to let us know he was on top of everything. Marianne remained somber. Her utter irrelevance to the process appeared to depress her. It was all like some heavily ritualized religious ceremony conducted in an untranslatable tongue. Obediently, we signed each and every dotted line.

The lawyers exchanged paper-clipped copies. Extraneous documents were wedged back into manila folders. Briefcases snapped shut. Done deal. Marianne abruptly stood. “My lawyer,” she announced, “said I shouldn’t do this.” Her lawyer scowled, confirming this fact. “My daughter had the idea to write something. About our lives in the house and all it has meant to us.” The attorneys nervously consulted their watches. Time was money and maybe their clocks were running. Mine stood stone still. The paper trembling slightly in her wrinkled hand, Marianne began to read. As a young couple, she and her husband had moved in with their babies. Virtually everything she hoped would happen in this house had come to pass. It was more than a house; it was a place where life occurred. Now it was time for her to move on. Marianne gazed directly at me and my wife. In a voice husky with emotion, she said, “May the new owners enjoy a full and rewarding life.” With that, her eyes teared up.

Suddenly, all the procedural trivia of the closing dissipated. This was a benediction, not just a transaction. There’s a deeper realm to this construction of lumber and lawn we call property. As when the fog burns away to reveal a vista, I finally saw clearly what was happening. Time would indeed sweep by far too quickly. My wife and I would raise our children and in what might seem like the blink of an eye, we would grow old. But thanks to Marianne, I would not be haunted. It would all be okay.

Bob Katz is a writer living in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Tags: Bob Katz colonial house history OHJ July/August 2002 Old-House Journal

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Founded in 1973, Old House Journal is the original authority when it comes to old-house restoration, traditional house styles, period kitchens, bath & kitchen restoration, DIY projects, gardens & landscaping, and more-- from Colonial and Victorian through Arts & Crafts and Mid-century Modern homes. 

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