The Younger Generation

(from my diary)
There’s This Old House on TV and then there’s this old house. Built in 1929 by an English Architect by the name of Spurgeon, it has more leaded glass windows than any other building in Victoria except Craigdarroch Castle. Two outer doors and four inner doors are leaded glass. Except, I’ve discovered, the lead in the doors isn’t lead but zinc.
There are fifteen other doors, all of which need to be stripped. The saving grace is that the previous owners used latex over varnish. When I scrape with a putty knife, the latex comes away in flakes and sheets, except, of course, in the rough spots. In the rough spots, it clings with fierce determination. My goal was to lift the paint while preserving the fine underlying finish. The result is that I now have piebald doors.
I’ve had better luck with the stairs to the second floor. Over the winter, on evenings when I was feeling bored or lonely, I’d sit and scrape away paint. I managed to get both the steps and the baseboard partly done. Who knows how long this job would have taken but for my son and his wife returning from four years in California. They’d gone to San Diego so he could get a Master’s degree in kinetic sculpture and since there are no ads in the Globe and Mail pleading for kinetic sculptors to make themselves known, his wife’s taken a job at the University and he’s fixing things around the house.
It’s amazing the skills you acquire building sculptures that move. The first thing he fixed was the microwave. It had taken on a life of its own, giving itself instructions. I’d punch the keys, it would whir into life, then abruptly shift to doing some unasked task. It had even wakened me at night with its beeping and I’ve rushed downstairs more than once to see it humming away. I’d taken to leaving a glass of water in it but finally, in desperation, unplugged it. It’s glowing eye faded to black.
I hate to admit it but I missed my microwave. When the kids went together and gave me this microwave one Christmas, I shook my head in disbelief. I’ve got a stove, I said, what would I use a microwave for?
Now, with this white box crouched cold and lifeless in the corner, I had to heat up soup in a pot. I’d forgotten what it was like to have to wash pots.  I phoned the Bay and the repairman said it would cost so much to fix that I might as well throw the microwave out. Reluctantly, I put it on the washing machine at the back door, ready to toss it onto the garbage truck. When I got home my son had it dismantled and was checking the circuit board. I kept expecting something terrible to happen, like a nuclear explosion or our all becoming instant boiled eggs but when he reassembled it, it obediently obeyed our commands.
He then drilled a hole in the floor and moved the TV to the corner I’d been meaning to move it to for years. He replaced the faucet assembly on the kitchen sink. He dismantelled the downstairs toilet, taking it right down to the lead lining in the floor, then reassembled everything so it worked again.
It was after that that he tackled the stairs. He waited, of course, until I was off to Iceland. He knew I’d be gone long enough for the job to be completed. He ripped off the modern carpet I’d had put down six years ago (it has to be replaced by an Axminster style runner and brass rods) stripped the paint off the stairs and the baseboards, experimented with some stain until he was certain that oak color was right for the stairs and Jacobean was right for the baseboards. Then he sanded and stained and varathaned until the stairs have a fine luster to them.
We haven’t got to the doors yet. I was going to get them dipped but when you multiply the number of doors by the eighty dollars, the sum is substantial. Instead we’ll do it outside to protect ourselves from the fumes. We’ll lay the doors on sawhorses and gently strip away the paint. Then my son will take the job in hand, sanding and staining and shellacking until Spurgeon, wherever he is, will nod with approval of this younger generation who think there’s nothing wrong with being able to do a bit of everything.

Dry Rot

This is an old house. By Canadian standards, that is. Not old like in Sweden or Italy. Old enough to have a certain lean to it. It’s built of wood as is appropriate for the West Coast. There are some stone houses around but they’re oddities, sort of like the places with sod roofs.
There are advantageous to a wood house. In an earthquake they’ll most likely shimmy and shake and except for some cracked plaster survive just fine. The problem is that this is the West Coast. It rains most of the winter. Things grow. If you leave something out for a few days, you come back to find it covered in periwinkle or blackberry vines or deadly nightshade. You have the feeling if you fall asleep in a hammock, when you wake you’ll need to call for help. A neighbor will have to come with shears to cut you free.
Visitors from the prairies rave about our gardens. These are the people who in late August put away their lawn mower and their shovel and hoe and rototiller for ten months. The snow buries everything so they can watch soap operas all winter or go curling.  Here, there’s no escape from gardening. If we get snow, it lasts two weeks, then disappears and leaves me with the job of chopping the broken branches off the rhodos. It’s nice that the Japanese quince blooms in late  January but that means gardening has begun again. The snowdrops soon appear and unless I resort to spreading Weed and Feed at night, there’ll soon be hyacinth and daffodils. I’ve barely had time to wash the stains out of the knees of  my jeans before I’m digging and fertilizing and weeding again.
With the rain comes mold. Not a little mold. Blue mold, black mold, white mold. Mold that covers everything. With the mold comes dry rot. Dry rot is a peculiar thing. Everything looks perfectly fine but when I step on the stairs one day, they collapse. When I look to see why, I discover the supporting beam has turned to dust. I can break apart the wood with my hands, push my fingers through it. Dry rot is a bit like marriages that disintegrate. They look great on the surface but in private they’re turning to dust. It’s like those people who appear on the news for having murdered their family or neighbours. Everyone says about them, they seemed quite normal, a little withdrawn perhaps, not hail fellow well met, but polite, considerate and then one day they butcher their family or friends. Rotten to the core under a veneer of politeness and paint.
That’s how  the steps to my back sun deck went. Perfectly sound it seemed and then dropping with a stomach clenching thunk. My father found a scrap of lumber and made a rough joint to hold everything in place but I knew I had to call  in a carpenter. He took the steps apart like a jigsaw puzzle, setting aside the good bits and throwing out those that had begun to dissolve. He hammered and sawed and banged and then the stairs were up again, sturdy as ever. He put a sheet of tar paper where the bottom step touched the ground.
“Earth and wood don’t mix,” he said. “The ground will rot out the wood in no time. Keep them separate as much as you can.”
I scouted around the property and discovered that when the lot next door was raised the contractor simply dumped fill up against the back of my carriage house. I got out my hoe and squeezed in between the embankment and the back wall and began to pull the soil away from the foundation.. The shingles were soft and punky.  There was no flat place to stand, no room to use a shovel. I had to hoe the debris back toward the lane, wrenching my hands each time I hit a rock. I’d dig that out and start again only to find another rock. I kept at it, though, because another winter and the shingles would be as soft as blotting paper, the uprights falling to pieces.
Now, I’m going around my yard, other people’s yards when I’m visiting, knocking on wood, checking the foundations, checking the beams that hold up our lives. I’ve got myself a small pocket knife, when no one’s looking, I press the point into wood just to make sure everything’s okay.