Between The Lines / Springtime in an old house
Published 5:20 am, Tuesday, April 19, 2011
The lilac by the back window was just beginning to put out its lovely lavendar blush, and it made our small back yard extravagant. I had never noticed such beauty before.
We were living in our first house on Bridgeport's west side. In the early 20th century it had been a premier neighborhood with some of the city's most prominent citizens living there. Our home was the former rectory for the First Baptist Church. Although it needed plenty of work, it was a classic colonial with a grand staircase and an imposing columned front porch. Truly, a house we could never have afforded anywhere else.
We had more rooms than we could use, really. The four bedrooms were each more spacious than the next. I chose one in the back with a door to the second floor screened porch to set up my office. Charlene had a good eye for antiques and bought our furniture cheaply at tag sales and shops. I was so pleased with my enormous cylinder-top desk, Stickley rocking chair and barrister bookcase holding a collection of leatherbound 19th century poetry. I was still trying to figure out who I was and felt a little like I was doing some adult role-playing. I was all set to be a Victorian man of letters pretending that the 20th century wasn't happening.
We both loved living in the old colonial but felt overwhelmed by its size sometimes. Charlene displayed her Fiestaware in the butler's pantry, made some updates to the kitchen and set about furnishing the living and dining rooms. We had moved in in October, so as soon as the weather warmed, I began painting the exterior of the house. The shingles were thickly covered with decades of cracked paint, and each window had a pair of wooden shutters that also had to be done. It was an enormous job for a young man and I still had the energy then to do it. We decided on yellow with black trim like one of the stately homes on the Old Post Road that we admired. I didn't finish it until the first chill of the fall.
The peaks terrified me since I was afraid of heights, and that was one tall house. My brother Brian helped me a lot that summer. Sometimes we lashed ourselves with ropes and climbed out the attic windows to reach areas I couldn't get at any other way. Charlene admired my work and encouraged me every day. As a young married man, it made me feel substantial to paint my own house. I was proud of my efforts, and the new paint job brightened up the whole street. Soon other neighbors started doing the same, and our neighborhood became a model of urban homesteading.
Old houses have great character, and the colonial had a way of keeping us company. It told us of past rain and wind and snow storms; it reminisced about holidays and celebrations; it confided matters of the heart to the ministers who had once lived there. Shadows could steal over the house at night, the accumulation of nearly a century of darkness settling upon human hopes. There was a perpetual wetness on the wallpaper where the chimney pulled away from the house. It seemed to portend the tears waiting for any young couple betrothed for a lifetime.
More than anything else, I loved the light in the house. It surprised me how bright the old pile could be. Sunlight poured in the lead-paned windows and across the honey-colored oak floors. In the spring we threw open the windows, and the zephyrs caught the lace curtains and made them dance. Their paisley patterns made fancy shadows on the walls. Brisk sea breezes whisked the gritty city clean of dirt and the lingering greyness of winter. The huge Norway maples along the sidewalk shimmered in the vernal light. Sometimes, in the glow of young love and new life I felt I must be in paradise.
I was upstairs reading one quiet afternoon on such a day. I was a teacher and a husband but not yet a father. Spring had infused my whole being, as it can a young man in love. Life was renewed and the freshness of the air and the bright sunlight made everything sparkle -- the glass in the windows and the bookcases, the fresh green of the grasses, the cloudless blue sky, the radiant leaves of the trees. I looked up from my book when I heard a vehicle pull up nearby and idle for a bit.
There was a long unfamiliar dark car parked at the curb. After a while, I saw two men carrying a stretcher out the front door of the house across the street with a black body bag on it. It was the old man who lived alone in the big house. It was a sad thing to see. It occurred to me that I was watching the final day in the long life of a man who had lived there since the neighborhood was new. There he was being carried out of his house in the middle of the day. That's how things ended for him and will surely end for the rest of us.
The event was over quickly, and I went back to my reading. I hardly knew what to make of it. Really, how long does it take to lift your head from a book and glance out the window? Yet it is an image I have never forgotten, as if I was intended to give witness to something profound. This was almost 40 years ago now, and more than ever, it makes me savor and praise the arrival of yet another spring.
Barry Wallace's "Between the Lines" column runs every Wednesday in the Fairfield Citizen.