(From my diary)
I’ve owned two houses. One was built in 1914 by a ship’s carpenter. It seemed a very ordinary house from the outside, brown shingle, yellow trim. Once I’d moved in, I discovered the brass ship’s locks in the doors, the cabinetry that only a trained cabinet maker could build, the finally matched fir paneling. In the fourteen .years I stayed there, I often felt like I was living inside a sailing ship.
When I left, I moved to a house I’d long coveted. It was overgrown with thorn bushes, vines and bamboo so that you could barely see it from the street. The part of the yard that wasn’t overgrown was uncut. The stone wall along the west and south was slowly disintegrating. Above this tangle, the steep roof and the black beams showed through the dogwood trees and pines. Through the gaps in the branches I could see the leaded glass windows. Often, when I walked by, I joked with a friend that someday, I would own this house but it was one of those things you say without really believing it, the way you might buy a ticket on a car being displayed at the mall. You buy it but have no real expectation that you will win.
Then, one day there was a real estate sign on the corner of the property and my friend whose parents have been in real estate all their lives and who knows all about flipping and fixing and creative financing said, “Let’s look at it.”
I said no, all that would happen was that I would be terribly unhappy after seeing it and not being able to afford it. But she’s persistent. On Saturday, I found myself rather reluctantly being dragged between the stone gate posts. Because of the address, people were pulling up in Mercedes and Cadillacs. An Oriental family zipped past us and veered off to the left to look at the west side of the house. Moments later, they zipped past us heading out the gate. They looked positively ashen.
“What in heaven was that about?” I asked. Their Mercedes was disappearing down the street.
On either side of the sidewalk there were overgrown gardens, then a two foot stone wall bordering the house. In the ten feet between the wall and the house there was a thicket of bamboo and flowers and weeds. We circled around to the left. There, in the bamboo thicket, were white wooden crosses. We began to count. There were thirty-one altogether and each one had the name tag of an animal. There was Rover and Boopsie and Silver and Lassie. We had stumbled across a pet cemetery.
“Gross,” I exclaimed.
“Never mind,” my friend said, “it just helped eliminate some of the competition.”
Inside the house there were beams and three fireplaces, a hexagonal sun room, a silver plated chandelier, sconces and more leaded glass windows that I’d seen since last visiting Craigdarroch Castle.
“Make an offer,” my friend said, after we’d been through the house.
“Be serious,” I replied.
“You make an offer. They say no. You’re in the same position as if you didn’t make an offer.”
So I made a ridiculous offer. Ridiculous being the sum I could afford. They never even bothered to counter. The real estate agent sniffed and said the owners had already turned down a cash bid that was bigger than that. So I forgot about it. But three months later when I was still in bed on a Sunday morning, the phone rang. A woman’s voice asked, “Are you still interested in the Tudor Cottage?”
“I haven’t got any more money,” I said.
“Fine,” she said. “They have to sell it by midnight tonight or they’ll lose the ocean front property on which they’ve made an offer.”
They signed my original offer at 11:30 that night. A month later when I took possession, my parents were visiting me. My mother took over cleaning the inside and my father and I tackled the yard. Quince bushes with wicked thorns covered the yard. The bush had handsome waxy leaves and in the spring a fine display of small deep pink flowers. However, no branch grows more than five inches in one direction before turning sharply to the side. The result is that branches interlock. Spines stick out from every direction. To cut a branch back on a normal bush, I’d cut it close to the main stem or even the root. Here there was no main stem and the root was protected by fifteen feet of tangle. We tried cutting larger pieces and pulling them out. They were locked in place. Our arms were immediately covered in painful scratches. We backed off and began to cut away small pieces that we could then maneuver free. It took us nearly two days before we discovered we’d been cutting back not one but three separate bushes that had grown together.
The reward was that in this tangle, we discovered two toppled bird baths. They were made of concrete but painted to look like terracotta and beautifully designed. We scraped off the dirt and moss, set them upright. We finally cut away the last of the thorn bush that had worked its way into the ivy covered fence. When the corner was clear, we discovered a flower bowl built into the top of the stone wall. In the side of the wall, tucked behind a plum tree there was a terracotta three quarter face. When we had finished with the thorns, we started on a fifty year old boxwood and fond, enclosed, the bust of a boy set on an old stump. On the west side, we pulled out the white grave markers then started to cut back the bamboo thicket. As we hacked and chopped, a slate sidewalk appeared. When the walls were clear we found two plaques in the front wall. At the gate, under a pine there was the half-size figure of a woman.
A neighbour who was in her nineties and who had lived on this street for forty-five years stopped to watch our progress. “Don’t,” she said, fixing me with a stern eye, “do anything to the gardens except clean them up. Wait until the spring. This used to be a show place. You never know what might still have survived.”
The chipper truck appeared. The pile of branches was now more than head high. Two men started shoving branches into the chipper. As each branch went through, there was a sudden, harsh buzz and a stream of wood chips flew into the truck. Just as they were finished, a private hauler arrived to pick up the garbage we’d hauled to the lane. There was old lumber and wire. Disintegrating furniture from under the sundeck. The remains of a clothes line and platform that were riddled with dry rot.
“You could have bought a new condo,” my father says as we’re hacking away at a bank of lilacs which have grown so weedy they won’t bloom. “We could be lounging around.”
He was the one who discovered the bust of the boy that had been enclosed by the boxwood. Our clearing the yard had been like a treasure hunt and I notice that as we work, he’s watching to see what other treasures might appear.
|photo by j.o.magnusson|