To your right, three enormous catalpa trees shade the driveway. A bayberry towers over you on the left. A sandy path winds through the grass to the door. The gentle breeze bears the scents of scrub-pine and salt marsh. A wood thrush begins its peculiar song. Day-lilies glow against the weathered shingles. Approach the door. Notice the mat on the step before you: Go Away. Open the door and enter. A tiny wind chime jingles as the screen door bangs shut behind you. Look around. Come see my dream house.
Its main frame was raised sometime during the Madison administration. Sturdy timbers neatly joined, held in place by wooden pegs that my grandfather would tap back in now and then. They creaked reassuringly at night like a safely moored ship. Its pine-wood planking is unthinkably wide. Follow the progress of the knots across both roof and floors and know that these planks were cut from a single massive tree, when such trees were still to be found here. A thick central chimney firmly anchors the house to earth.
Once this was a simple Cape. Perhaps a flintlock hung over the main fireplace. Over the years it has been extended again and again. Now, it sprawls along one side of its double-lot. It is big, but it somehow seems even bigger from the inside, like something from Alice's wonderland. No right angles or plumb lines here. It is not poor craftsmanship, though. Just time, lots of time, and the ever-shifting soil of Cape Cod.
Every doorway is hung with a thin wooden "Christian door". Each door has two small glass panes at the top of the cross and a black iron latch. No doorknobs here. The bedrooms are tiny. Just big enough for a bed and, perhaps, a desk or chest. A few closets seem to have been added as an afterthought. Not so. Many old Capes are like this. Once, closets were taxed as extra rooms.
See the never-used front dining room. Year-round, it stood ready for the formal dinners that were never held here. Pewter chargers and china arranged in neat rows on the hutch. Three pristine birch logs on the fire-grate. A marble-topped side table with a Tiffany lamp. Eight caned ladderback chairs around a drop-leaf table. No ghosts linger in this museum. A spiral staircase beckons you up.
On a table to your right, an antique dollhouse sits before a lace-curtained window. Through an open doorway, you see a white iron hospital bed under the bare rafters. The ghost of a little boy peers through a tiny window overlooking the yard. A brass frame on the night-stand holds an illuminated quotation:
God made me to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next. - Baltimore Catechism, Lesson 1.
Long ago, this was my room. The quotation was placed there by my grandfather. It was the first thing I saw in the morning; the last thing I saw at night. I still have it but I no longer need it. It is written on my heart.
All around there is wood, some bare, some painted white. Thin wooden walls, thin wooden doors. From the bed you can look up and see the rafters, the roof above, in some places the shingles. Somehow it does not leak. When the rains come the room resonates like a drum, but it is dry, if not always warm. This part of the house is unheated, but it seems like enough.
In the next room the ceiling and rafters are finished: a white wooden ceiling and finished beams. A four-poster bed with a nubbly cotton spread. Another tiny window. The windows here are the oldest. They have no mechanisms. You open one and place a stick in it. More modern windows have buttons that pop out at varying heights. Windows more modern still have levers that turn down. Only a few of the newest windows have pulleys and weights. No double-glazing here. It seems like enough.
A hallway leads through another bedroom, the attic proper, and still another bedroom. Stairs lead down to the old kitchen. Everywhere it seems there is another window. You breathe clean salt air in white Cape light. The old kitchen is white wood and blue glass. Braided rugs and wide pine floors. A pot-belly stove. Copper pans hang above the sink. More windows look out on the sun-porch.
The sun-porch smiles at its own little joke. It is nailed right on to the side of the house. Step down into it and turn around. There is the old front door, the doorbell, the mail-slot, the stairs. Three windows look out from the old clapboards left intact. Seven windows with bamboo shades surround you with light. To the left, my grandfather's favorite chair. To the right, my grandmother's writing desk. Built-in bookshelves invite you to browse. Sofas and chairs invite you to stay. Friendly ghosts linger here. This is where their voices echo.
At the very back stands the work kitchen. Another add-on, Southern-style, to keep the heat out in summer. An ancient Hotpoint stove. An elderly Frigidaire. A small but sufficient countertop. Two wooden stools. The ghosts of a woman and a little boy watch from the corner. A single French door leads to the old kitchen. Cookware hangs from the rafters. A wind chime tinkles in the breeze. The screen door looks out at the barn. No stainless steel appliances here, no granite counters. Somehow it still seems like enough. This tiny kitchen was once my grandmother's alone. In time, it became ours. Just one voice echoes here.
Who loves you, baby? Your Nana, that's who.
I dislike home-improvement shows. Something about them saddens me. It is always more, more, more. Stainless steel appliances and black granite counters, Andersen windows and energy efficiency, houses with more bathrooms than bedrooms, Sub-Zero and Jenn-Air and all the rest. If you like that sort of thing, that's fine. I don't hold it against you. I just don't see the point, myself.
My dream house had a single, tiny bathroom with a cast-iron tub, a tiny kitchen with old-but-working appliances. Tiny bedrooms and no closet space. It was cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Its only concessions to modern living were gas, electricity, and running water. The house is still there. It looks like it has been thoroughly modernized. Honestly, the new owners did a nice job. It's still a beautiful house, but I could never live there.
Only in my dreams.