9/30/18: A Radical Redo From a Big Bang

Just days before Christmas about six years ago an SUV ran off Sixth Street in the steady rain, smashed through our front garden’s antique iron fence, ripped over the grass and through the front flower bed to charge up the wide front porch stairs and roar straight into the house. The sixteen-year-old girl, a recently licensed driver, had struck the neighbor’s van parked in the street next door, then pressed the accelerator to the floor (thinking it was the brake). She was unhurt, but our home was grievously wounded.

The sixty m.p.h. hit caused the entire structure to vibrate violently from the shockwave. Almost all the original 125-year-old plaster on the second floor shook, cracked, split and then crumbled. Dust bloomed, coating every single thing. Even toothbrushes. The plastered, papered walls were held together only because of the wallpaper. This huge mess necessitated massive replastering and extensive rebuilding (which took nearly 8 months).

The exterior of our home was shattered, as well. The front screen door was caved in, the interior hall banister and bottom stair treads were rammed out of alignment; the wide porch stairs had been crushed; much of the front porch’s floor and railings were in splinters. Two ancient white iron urns of impressive weight that had flanked the stairs were flung well away from their moorings.

In July, after a long, tiresome renovation, it was finally fit to live in again. (Thank goodness the girl’s parents had insurance!)

Another big change stemmed from this event. Our house has lost weight.

It’s interesting what possibilities suggest themselves when one’s entire second floor- including bed frames and mattresses- are stacked in corridors, or piled temporarily into other rooms. Some familiar objects began to take on a new identity- as potential clutter. Furniture, willed to us by Joe’s parents, rocking chairs, tables and other stuff we’d always kept, seemed to ask, ‘Are all of us still necessary? No.

So. A purge began. The ultimate clean, I think. I reviewed the accumulation of forty-five years of marriage, pointed at things and said, quietly, “You, you and you- OUT.” Seven pieces of furniture (cupboards, chairs, a desk, end tables, an armoire) were sold. Result? Every room felt much more open.

Other changes happened as well. A month before the plasterer had finished, I’d looked hard at our empty master bedroom. With everything banished to accommodate the plasterer’s ladders, buckets and tools, the thirty-five-year-old carpet was naked, so to speak. There were ancient stains over there, and there, and parts of it, where our bed had been, were much faded from exposure to years of morning sunlight. Now plaster dust coated it, dulling the blue. It would never be the same. We could now install a new carpet without fuss. Wait a minute! Wouldn’t it be fun to see what lay beneath? Maybe I’d want to do something different!

So I ripped it out, removed the ancient, shredding pad, then vacuumed away 35 years of dust, bits of plaster and dirt. A yellow pine floor blinked in the sunlight. The wide planks gently sagged just a bit toward the room’s middle, and were peppered with shiny nail heads. Someone, years before we took possession, had tried to cure its creaks before re-carpeting. One plank in the middle of the room had been partially cut away and replaced with fiberboard, probably to accommodate electrical wiring. I looked down: the little desk we’d had there had certainly left indentations, even with that old carpet and pad down. This was really soft wood.

The empty room echoed. I sang a few phrases of ‘The Last Rose of Summer,’ and grinned. Not bad, old girl. In here, you sound decent.

Suddenly tired, I slid down against the wall, and sat on the floor. How long would it be before this floor saw daylight again? Probably another quarter of a century.

I thought of the three previous families over 120 years who’d loved this room, who’d chatted in here, who had undone and brushed out their long hair, slept, written letters, snarled at mosquitoes that had sneaked past the open, screenless windows’ curtains… I smiled, and let my mind wander. A rusty gleam caught my eye. Embedded in a board was an extremely old, very thin, long hairpin, which had helped to hold someone’s luxuriant hair firmly in place at the turn of the previous century. I pried the thing out: its imprint remained in the wood. In my palm lay homey history- in a hairpin.

It didn’t take long to decide to re-carpet. The soft pine floor would permanently register every bit of furniture we set on it. Plus, in Northern Michigan, the winters can be long and cold, and I couldn’t imagine walking on wooden floors, even with thickish rugs down. (By the way, at the turn of the century linoleum was all the rage. Everyone who could afford such a luxury chose it; we have remnants of the pattern, with a horsehair backing, selected by the original owners, the Morgan family. Lino, the height of fashion, proved sturdy and easy to mop.)

I didn’t repaper any of the four bedrooms whose ceilings and walls had been completely replastered, but chose instead to paint them, using light, airy colors. Then every bedroom was reassembled. Their windows could be approached without leaning over end tables, and the new honey brown carpet in our master bedroom gave the pale yellow walls a warm glow. The long hallway received pale apricot paint, decorated only by a simple, flowery, foot-wide border, which enhanced the high ceiling. I sold many framed pictures, rehanging only the most cherished. Wow! What a difference!

Those changes led us to remove the carpet (ruined by ground-in plaster globs as it was applied to the downstairs hall walls and ceiling, not to mention workers’ dirty boots as they trampled in and out for months) and tile the front hall downstairs instead. (The next year we redid the living room walls to compliment the repaired part.) Along with less furniture, I nearly emptied the clothes-stuffed closets. It’s amazing how many aging outfits and tired pairs of shoes were recycled.

Some weekends I still touch up the paint here and there in the baths and in our kitchen to keep things looking fresh.

After such an awful Bang, a slimmer Sunnybank House has settled nicely into its new look. 

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