Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The English call it "bodging", Part 1

ChaliceChick posted a link to There, I Fixed It, a website of unlikely repairs. It doesn't really remind me of 26 Water Street in Poland ... and yet, and yet, there are certain similarities.

When I was 15, my parents bought a house in the center of the village. Oh happy day! Yellow Creek flowed behind the house. I was ecstatic! We could walk everywhere and the property had beautiful trees. Only then did my mother warn me that the house had been neglected for many years.

My parents bought the house from Mr. L, who for three years had been living in another town with the second Mrs. L. The first Mrs. L had been very sick, bedridden, for a number of years before her death several years earlier, and the house had been unloved during her illness and afterwards.

Some of the house's issues were honestly a matter of taste. Like the silver woodwork, for instance. Yes! All the interior woodwork was painted silver. Every last bit of it including the kitchen. All the ceilings had been papered with silvery designs on white, and every room had different, dark, surly wallpaper with silver in the design. My bedroom was dark green and mustard-yellow and silver paisley (30s vintage, perhaps); the dining room was striped navy, dark red, and silver. But wait -- both rooms were papered on only three walls and the fourth wall was knotty pine paneling in its full orange spotted splendor.

Then there were issues of age. The house started out as a one-room cabin for the Methodist preacher. It was added to, a room at a time, as he married and his family grew. So every room was differently proportioned, no two doors were the same size or design, the windows had been installed one at a time, no two fireplaces matched, there were relics within the walls of abandoned structures, and each room's floor was at its own level. Of course there wasn't a plumb line or level surface in the place. And we won't mention closets.

So there's taste and age, and then there's neglect and weirdness. Take oven cleaner, for instance. Beneath the kitchen sink we found dozens of cans of oven cleaner. The housekeeper had apparently tried every brand manufactured over more than a decade, to little avail. I once ventured into the house to find my mother, aunt Billie, and Mr. B all gathered around the open oven, trying vainly to imagine what could have happened in the oven to make it like that.* Whatever had happened had happened often. Billie suggested that a baked alaska had exploded, which seemed overoptimistic considering the L family's probable cooking skills.

So that was neglect. Somewhere on the cusp of neglect and weirdness came the installation of the house's water supply -- possibly in the house's fiftieth year -- in which every left-hand faucet was for cold water and every right-hand faucet for hot. But the first truly weird thing we encountered was the kitchen cabinets.

The house was such a shambles that at first we lived partly at the farm and partly at my grandmother's, on College Street. I was the first to actually try to organize the kitchen, and it occurred to me that the kitchen cupboards were shallower than they should have been. We saw that at some point, cupboards had been built directly in front of, and screwed to, the built-in cupboards. So the additional ones were pulled away, and we found cupboards directly behind them, with the doors nailed shut. Removing the nails, we found shelves still stocked with plates, cups, baking powder, and a few other things in tins and jars. The old shelves were exactly the same size as the ones that had been added and we could never guess why they had so carefully been replaced: a totally meaningless change.

*When as a Hastings trustee I learned that the heaviest pollution on the waterfront's old Anaconda site was where a vat of PCBs had exploded in the early 40s, I saw a possible answer. Mr. L was an industrial chemist. Home manufacture of PCBs?

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