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Building Character

We. built our home in 1975. The stick-build Cape Cod was simple with clean purposeful lines and two dormers. This pair of front-rooved outcrops cut a stately profile which fulfilled my long- held dream to live in a very special space, not a box with a roof. Yes, I realize this is all in my mind but isn’t everything? I remember walking through the open toothpick walls as workmen nailed and hammered away. The smell of pine lumber filled the air. Before it was our floor, it was a plywood deck that covered a basement and part of a garage and was the base of a maze of transparent walls. .

Everything about it was fresh and new. Fox, deer rabbit and racoon had quietly roamed the ground where most recently mechanical equipment dug into a hillside to create our basement. We were city kids in our twenties setting up house where no one had ever set up house before, and yes, breaking new ground in the process. Our home was built to appear old, or at least established and that it did. Not only to us but to visitors who would frequently ask us “ who lived in your house before you did ? Those innocent comments in casual conversation made me feel like I had really accomplished something.

It seemingly took decades for grass to take hold and the backfill to settle, while I created mowing patterns traveling over our green weeds, scrubs and patches of dirt. Over the years we took down trees then planted new ones, grew grass and poured concrete. It seemed like the green roof, white siding and multitude of windows had somehow all replaced themselves while we weren’t looking. Our living room came to comfortably rest between a south-facing bay window and a woodburning fireplace, just as we had planned. After the addition of a large first floor bedroom and a wonderful kitchen remodel we were snug and I was ready to slowly slip into a soft retirement, the way retail establishments now hold soft openings as if they weren’t ready to fully commit. Things were going well inside while outside I had given only passing notice to the trees I planted, growing taller as I got older. I was beginning to experience what I had previously only read about, having spent many of my professional years researching and writing about local history, telling stories of “the way things used to be”.

We built new fifty years ago because I couldn’t imagine living in an old home. I had been in plenty where the creaks, pops and bumps of grand old homes held no appeal for me. It was a recent walk down our main staircase which revealed a sound I’d heard so many times during years of old home tours. The tight oak treads and risers installed for us years ago by master carpenters were beginning to talk back to me. Nothing disrespectful, just a tick, induced by the pressure of footsteps here and there, reminding me they had been in my service for ages. Being an observant type I also noticed the rumbles and creaks were beginning to spread throughout the house. The living room floor has a squeak by one end of the sofa. Between the kitchen and living room and elsewhere there were unavoidable spots where time spoke in muffled tones beneath the carpeted floor. The den was a showcase of rumbles and clicks, where you can hear strains of wood against wood. Nothing as sophisticated as the popping echo of dry tongue and groove parquet at the Art Institute of Chicago but still detectable.

Several years ago, we decided to get new carpet in the living room and den. In anticipation of that unveiling I readied myself by mentally mapping out the zones of the pesky sounds. I spent weeks plotting the elimination the offending traffic patterns. When the day arrived, I stood ready with a collection of long wood screws and two batteries at full charge for my new cordless drill. And then, there it was, the bare 1975 plywood underlayment spread out before me. I began my resuscitation of the original decking, happily walking and drilling, walking and drilling as if I were hunting for Easter eggs on the front lawn. For some reason unknown to me the creaking persisted regardless of how many screws penetrated the surface. It was a defeated man who watched the new carpet layers do their job. Literally shoving my irritating problem under the new rug. Though unsuccessful, I felt I did the best I could to return to the tight solid days of yore. I longed for the firm silent steps I had taken when our home was new and the floors were speechless.

I was left to reckon with the stark reality of change. In his 1958 novel “The Leopard”, Giuseppe di Lampedusa says “...for things to remain as they are, everything must change”. The author was rhetorically outlining an impossibility. It was becoming clear to me, day by day, that my family home was acquiring a true sense of -- character. At times, I even imagined I was at sea walking the decks of an aging Clipper under full sail. The modest white-sided house on a hill with two centurion-like dormers on its’ steep roof had become the home I’d always wanted, like us, marking time as having been lived in and lived in well. More than a shelter this abode is a dependable member of our family come blizzards or sunshine, as it welcomed birthdays, graduations, overnight stays and a wedding. These days, I’ve refrained from hearing those squeaks as defects but rather as rich markers of time. What I once believed to be imperfections are now cherished as aging tones of a generation. I’ve come to terms with change, proudly taking ownership of every pop, creak, rumble and groan of this building’s character, embracing our history together and savoring all the stories which lay just beneath my feet. In a new development, I have noticed a curious yet pleasing silence as I walk every corner of the house in search of my hearing aids.