What Old Houses Have Taught Me

By: Kris Motyka

I was in the back of the line when patience was handed out.  So, I’m not sure if this is an ‘acquired skill’ or if it was always there, waiting to be coaxed out of me.  What I do know is that, if we had to reconstruct that  line today, I would now be in the middle.  Some other person who lives in a brand new house would be in the back.

As incurable ‘old house lovers’, we now have two home restoration projects going on at the same time.  One has been in the making for 12 years and is in southern France.  It is an 800 year old stone farmhouse that was abandoned for over 20 years before we bought it.  The second house, now our home in Santa Clara, had seen its golden years as a single family Queen Anne between 1895 and 1935 before being cut up into two apartments.   We’ve been working on the Victorian for the last seven years.

The accumulated hours of both have finally caught up to us.  We are officially beyond tired.

We spent two weeks in France this September working ‘like crazy people’ friends over there said.   It felt impossible and scarily hopeless.  Hopeless because we couldn’t see the light at the end of the twelve year tunnel.    After the first week we said ‘never again’ will we work this hard in so short a time.  At the end of the trip, we collapsed.  And yet, just as we were on our last legs, the house gave us some much-needed incentive.  Once again, it shared more of its secrets with us and as tired as we were, made us feel a renewed enthusiasm for all the possibilities the future held.  The house charmed us once again.

The farmhouse did this by revealing several of these ‘secrets’ in the middle of our stay, when we began to really drag.  With only four days to go, we realized that in order to put the heating/cooling equipment in the ‘cave’ or cellar, I’d have to empty it of the 18 inches of old straw and ancient rabbit ‘pellets.’  This also meant I had to haul out hundreds of years of farm equipment, doors, etc. that had been stored there for years.  It was an unventilated room and difficult work.  To my surprise, in the middle of this room under all that straw I found a huge round stone with the center hollowed out.  It looked exactly like the ‘mortar’ stones you see on the river banks up in gold country that Native Americans used to crush grain.  I carefully brought it outside and cleaned it off.  The next day, still excited about the stone, I had renewed energy.  On our last day, also in the cellar, I looked for the first time at two large wooden crates with writing stamped in black.  They were filled with old iron farm tools and stuck in the back.  To my surprise, they appeared to be special weapons supply boxes from WWII.  I asked a friend to come and have a look and my suspicion was confirmed – our area of the Languedoc was a well-known French Resistance stronghold.  Our house had helped, in its small way, to fight off the Nazis!

“Restoration Fatigue” is not new.  We’ve all been stricken with it over the years.  What I found myself thinking is that with both of these houses, at critical times of (despair, depleted funds, fatigue) each house has given us something of itself to keep us going – an enticement to continue and not give up.  When we were in this state  a few years ago, our Queen Anne gave up something that we had lost all hope of ever finding – the only picture we have of the woman who built this house.  We found it behind the mantle.   About four or five years ago, the farmhouse did the same thing.  We thought we had gone through everything in the house.  That there was nothing left to learn.  And then, one day, with the sun shining just so on this beam spanning the ceiling, there it was…a hand-carved date of 1769 with the worker’s initials.  In five years we had never noticed it.

Now, when I start to feel the weight and enormity of our projects, I stop and look around.  I breathe.  And then I get back to work, knowing that an old house will be generous with you as long as you are giving and kind in return.  Old houses have taught me something I never thought I’d have… patience.

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