All The Beauty We Cannot See

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My grandparents on both my Mom’s and Dad’s sides had beautiful old homes. Compared to the post-war bungalow where I grew up, their houses displayed craftsmanship of wood, and plaster, and creative details that my own house didn’t have. Just as my own upbringing was solid, functional and straightforward, both sets of grandparents possessed the nostalgia, steadfastness, and whimsy that their own houses portrayed. At least in my mind.

And it was in visiting my grandparents’ houses where I first fell in love.

To a child, the smallest of details are captured by imagination. My father’s parents’ house had tiny doors that opened to other lands… and doubled as a place for grown-ups to collect their milk and mail when not in the company of children.

They also had doorknobs fit for royalty.

Unlike the dulled utilitarian brass knobs at my own home, my grandparents’ doorknobs were made of glass that sparkled in the sunlight. Little prisms of opulence whose rainbows formed the bridge between this world and the one created in my imagination. I remember thinking those doorknobs were as precious as diamonds, and my mother’s stern warnings of “don’t touch” as we walked through MacIntosh and Watts, instilled in me the appropriate sense of reverence when looking at them.

I vowed one day that I, too, would have a house with pretty crystal knobs on every door.

Thirty five years later, I broke that promise when we bought this house.

As I completed our first walk through, I was disheartened to find that the doorknobs here range from simple farmhouse latches for the upstairs bedrooms, to some ugly brown marbled doorknobs on the doors downstairs.

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When we painted the living room over the holidays, we decided to remove some of the doors. While we don’t want to subscribe to open-concept living in this house, it does makes sense to remove the physical doors we don’t use. Andi was more than happy to take them off our hands to find them new homes as up-cycled farmhouse tables.

Not only was I happy for her to take them, I was also secretly happy to give away those ugly doorknobs that came with them.

A week later, I stopped by her booth at the flea market. She excitedly thanked us again for the doors… and breathlessly exclaimed her absolute delight in the doorknobs.

What?

Somehow, I had been so busy being disappointed by the lack of glass doorknobs, that my grown-up self had misplaced my childhood sense of wonder. Back then, I would have easily looked beyond the physical object before me to discover the beauty others might have missed.

Of course with a farmhouse built in 1830, glass would not have been readily available. I’m not sure when the doors were installed, but it actually stands to the reason that the doorknobs would be anything but glass.

So imagine my surprise when I discover that these ugly swirly brown doorknobs that I have been detesting for over a year are actually a most coveted antique for doorknob collectors.

Called a Bennington Doorknob, the name comes from the town of Bennington, Vermont, where in 1849 Christopher Webber Fenton developed the method used to create the swirls and specks that characterize them. While you can now buy replicas, the originals were made from clay.

A search on the Antique Doorknob Collectors of America website revealed more information:

How do I know if I have a real Bennington knob?
To be a Bennington, the knob body must be cream colored. Verified specimens of Bennington knobs, infrequently found on the open market, are glazed through two distinctive processes: a Rocking ham glaze or Flint Enamel glaze. The Rockingham glaze is characterized by a mottled appearance, cause by the application of a glaze with manganese content. This glaze may be applied by several methods: by spattering, dripping, sponging or brushing in an uneven manner, allowing th cream colored body to remain exposed to a greater or lesser degree.
The Flint Enamel was perfected by Christopher Fenton in 1849. This glaze is characterized by a rich appearance of mingling colors produced by sprinkling metallic salts on the knob body, over a transparent under-glaze. (Source: Antique Builders’ Hardware Knobs & Accessories by Maud L. Eastwood)

Grandparents have such a wonderful way of inspiring whole other lifetimes. In researching Bennington knobs, I came across this blog post from another farmhouse rehabilitator. Her grandmother had saved a Bennington knob for her granddaughter to use in her own house when the time came.

While I was coveting glass doorknobs, she was coveting Benningtons.

I guess in old houses, you are never just holding a doorknob but a piece of history and all of the memories that go with it. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. While I don’t see the sparkle of glass, my grown-up self appreciates the lost art form we are so lucky to have.

“All that glisters is not gold…”

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Living Room 1.0

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My Dad calls it sweat equity. It’s the hands-on work you put into something that allows you to get something in return for free. Instead of an outlay of cash, all it requires is a little old-fashioned hard work and some elbow grease.

Earlier this year I told someone about our Oaks and Stones project. Instead of looking interested or even impressed, he quickly asked if Jeff and I were “handy people”. Meaning, were we planning to renovate the home ourselves. When I said that we weren’t he simply replied, “Well that’s the most expensive way to go about living in a stone house.” To emphasize the point, he slowly rubbed his thumb and forefinger together ominously.

It’s not that we don’t want to increase the value of our home through sweat equity, it’s that we don’t really know how… yet.

As I write this on the eve of a new year, I am thinking back on all of the things we have learned how to do this year. For the first time, we trimmed trees, stacked wood properly (this achievement goes entirely to Jeff), and drove our new John Deere lawn tractor. That might not seem like much to some, but for us each new skill has become part of our toolkit for living going forward.

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Surprisingly, all of this learning has also taught me so much more than I ever realized about myself. Because in learning, we are exposed to our own truths.

Learning forces us to take chances, to risk, and to stretch beyond our comfort zones. It asks us to trust ourselves in times when we may not feel certainty about what we are putting our faith in. And it requires us to feel vulnerable at the risk of failure.

If there’s one thing I have learned this year above all else,  it’s that I don’t live nearly as fearlessly as I thought.

October marked the 1 year anniversary in our house. While we’d already made so many improvements to its workings (roof and furnace) by then,  we still had yet to really start thinking about the interior spaces where we live.

Decorating is often a puzzle. Once you find the right first piece, everything else seems to fall into place. But where to start? In a house with infinite options, my own finite experiences felt limiting. In that realization, I found myself paralyzed with the fear of committing to anything.

Then Jeff found a paint app. And I discovered Joanna Gaines’ Pinterest Board. Soon, we were daydreaming about painting our living room Grizzle Gray and Polar Bear White. Of finally making our first real move to make our house a home for us.

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Fate nudged us along by introducing me to a new friend one day in yoga, who happens to work in the paint department at Home Depot. A delightfully bubbly personality who quelled my nerves and even instilled some excitement for the task at hand.

We were set!

But, I had never painted before and my stomach churned at the idea of making a mistake with the colour or the technique. My dear friend, Andi from Just Shut Up and Paint, reassured me that there is no such thing as a mistake when it comes to painting. Everything is reparable.

I just had to learn to trust myself.

So, we decided to give ourselves the gift of a new living room this Christmas.

While our clients were off on holiday, we settled into a routine of painting in the morning and movie watching in the afternoon. We started on December 23rd and painted our way through Christmas with an eggnog in one hand, and a paintbrush in the other.

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A week later, on December 30th, we unwrapped our last taped wall to reveal our final gift to ourselves, paid through our own sweat equity.

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Some people get things for Christmas. This year, we got memories that will last a lifetime. The room isn’t perfect. We’re not professional painters. But I learned that Jeff and I make a great team. He is an incredible painter. And I love to tape.

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But more than that, I learned that I need to start conquering my fears. To embrace all of the imperfections that come with a 185 – soon to be 186 – year old house. When I truly started taking stock of all of the things that I hadn’t done this year out of fear, I realized the laundry list of what I can do in the new year is pretty exciting. A new garden, a painted front entranceway, painted kitchen cupboards, sanded hardwood floors…

2016 will be the year of living fearlessly. For all that means and all that will ultimately bring, you’ll have to stay tuned…

Happy New Year!

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If These Walls Could Talk

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For some reason I want to know more about the other families who have lived in this house. Why this has become a thing for me, I’ll never know. Maybe it’s because this is the oldest house I’ve ever lived in, or maybe it’s because I am the happiest I’ve ever been living here. Even after some soul searching I really can’t say why the questions remain: Who lived here and what were they like? Did they slide their hand down the banister when walking down the stairs? Did they, too, lean their body weight against the bedroom door to close it fully? Did they ever gaze dreamily out the window and realize their luck at having such a view? Did their laughter reverberate through the rooms, and their tears fall silently to the floor?

When all is quiet, I sit in silence and overlay my being present with all those whose being has passed. This house knows all, and if only these walls could talk.

I remember a few years ago, standing in an attic at the back of a house in Amsterdam looking out onto a giant tree in the middle of a courtyard and wondering the same thing. But in this case, I remembered this tree, and these walls, and this view, and the lives that once lived here. I experienced them all through another diarist whose same gaze found solace during WW2 peeking through the window of her attic sanctuary at the tree I was looking at now in the present.

Words allow us to time travel.

But I am luckier than most. This area is rich with history and many have passed along stories that are making this journey easier to recount. And, over time, I have discovered a few souls from the past who did want their presence known by those who came after; achieving immortality not through poetry or art, but through the use of a stick and some wet cement.

The Writing’s On The Wall… And The Floor

We know that many of the original barns and outbuildings on the farm were burned down in the early part of the 20th Century. But there is no wonder when the current barn was constructed thanks to Old Man Halladay and his crew. These cement steps lead into the right-hand side of the barn:

Inscription: Hiram Halladay, June 17 1944

Hiram Halladay, Montegue Township

Inscription: Sara Halliday, Hiram Halladay, Henry Zwipf, Deane Zwipf, John Wise, Gordon Graham, 1944

Halladay Farm, Montegue Township, Lanark County

And, forty years later, on the left-hand side of the barn, the concrete must have been replaced (I love the child’s handprints!):

Inscription: Christopher Mahon, Oct 85

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Earlier this summer, Kevin spotted another name etched into one of the cornerstones of the house, like a signed piece of art. We don’t know if this was original to the initial construction or added sometime later during repointing:

Inscription: Fern (center, right of the picture)

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And, finally, we noticed this one earlier this spring once the snow had melted:

Inscription: Cliff + Joan Bristow, 1981

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When you are in the presence of history, it is hard not to imagine yourself in media res. But, somehow, discovering literal signs from those who have lived this existence before you makes you appreciate that their journeys were as unique to these grounds as your own. That each life leaves an indelible mark on the evolution of a house regardless of their signature style, or the style of their signature.

The Roof Reveal

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It has been 9 months since we moved in and already two of our most pressing projects have been completed — adding a working furnace and replacing the roof. If I had been faced with these projects ten years ago, I would have surely called them “unsexy” due to the need to place function over form. Now, I marvel at not only how critical these pieces are to a fully operational house, but how beautiful they can be in and of themselves.

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We now have a solid cover under which the rest of our renovation projects can take place. In the future, only the shingles and eavestroughs will need to be replaced in our lifetime since the chimneys, soffit, fascia and dormers have been updated to stand the test of time.

Dormer

Kevin painstakingly hand-bent a myriad of metal sheets to wrap the existing wood soffit and fascia, putting as much care into his labour as I imagine the original home builders did close to two hundred years ago. When he came across rotten boards, he replaced them and cut them to resemble their templates. The materials may have changed, but the craftsmanship has remained the same — a detail that, in this day in age, is not lost on us and our good fortune of having Kevin on our side.

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On the last day of the project, Kevin and his crew cleaned up their workspace. The air was heavy with the unspoken sadness of goodbye and the overwhelming reverence for the work already completed. You see, with this ongoing project, we all know that they will be back, we just don’t know when…

Packing Up

Our next projects remain foundational again in scope. The windows will be replaced, the cellar door that leads outside will be re-trenched and upgraded and the basement window wells will be re-dug. The timing of these will be dependent upon the weather and budget. Of course, they will also be balanced with the two most pressing interior projects — insulating the extension and the former parlour. Until then, it’s looking like there will be a few more cold winters to contend with while we wait.

Old houses like ours are certainly charming, but living in them is not for the faint of heart. It requires sacrifice, love and patience. There is no instant gratification to be found here, just the journey of possibility and the overwhelming reward of a completed job done well.

Last night, the rain fell softly on the new roof. The exposed stone wall in the extension (formerly the exterior of the house) remained dry and the stones themselves slowly started to lighten from the 100 years of damp.

As I lay in bed, I quietly listened to the sound of the raindrops hitting the roof with a muffled softness reminiscent of a forest walk during the misty days of fall. As I slowly drifted back to sleep, I could only smile in gratitude for all that we’ve accomplished so far in such a short period time… and all of the possibilities that still lie ahead.

I wouldn’t trade this journey that we’re on for anything.

Roof Reveal

Home Is Where The Heart Is

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“Home is where you hang your hat”, my mother used to tell me. Soon the saying had become a mantra as I moved from place to place throughout my 20’s and 30’s, finding solace in the very temporary nature of hat hanging. But this house, our forever home, has never been a place where I’ve wanted to hang a hat. It beckons so much more than simply removing adornment and settling in to a safe space that inspires you to be yourself. If home is where you hang your hat, then our stone house under the oaks is where you unpack your soul. Home here, is most definitely, where the heart is.

Farm Sunrise

Before we moved in, Jeff and I cleaned house. With three big dumpsters-full of our old lives, we pared down our worldly possessions to only those with true value… to our house, our business and ourselves. We were making room, not only for the reconfiguration of rooms and walls as renovations progressed, but for our new lives as well.

I’ll always remember that bright sunny day at the end of August during our house inspection before we made the commitment to buy. We sat around the former owners’ kitchen table entombed in the peaceful silence only afforded by houses five stones thick. It was at that moment when the house inspector, a burly man who didn’t appear to ever wax poetic, paused in writing up his report and out of nowhere exclaimed: “This house has really good energy”.

We couldn’t agree more. Like attracts like.

Kevin loves this house. He doesn’t know if its his connection to his ancestors, some of whom were stonemasons, but he will always have a soft spot for working on stone houses. And, it shows in the care and loving detail that has gone into his work over these past few weeks.

But Kevin is only here to help us with the structure of the house itself. We still have to furnish it beyond the beds and two recliners we currently live with. And, those furnishings have to be economical since most of our house-to-home budget is focused on the renovations themselves.

That’s where this story now turns to Andi.

Miss Shut Up and Paint

We met Andi about a year ago at McHaffie’s Flea Market in Morrisburg, Ontario and instantly fell in love with her booth, Just Shut Up And Paint. Back then, we said that if we ever found the house of our dreams, she was going be in charge of filling it. Her furniture is warm and inviting, forgiving of life’s mishaps and welcoming of living all at the same time. It is the kind of furniture we knew we wanted to surround ourselves with. Just like this house, she finds old furniture with past lives and resurrects them with a fresh coat of paint and some love.

Some love!

Andi is full of this and more. Her personality is infectious and her creativity is boundless. Spending time with her transports me back to the carefree days of my childhood, when being silly and loving life were all that mattered. Together, we would have been blood sisters, getting into mischief and creating imaginary worlds where only mere banality existed to almost everyone else.

And so with Andi’s help, we are starting to fill our home with furniture. Each piece carefully selected and lovingly reimagined. This way of decorating is all about the journey, not the destination, and I love it.

First, we found a Depression-era kitchen table in January from one of Canada’s first furniture manufacturing companies, Knechtel Furniture Limited.

Knechtel Furniture

Here’s how Andi described it to me when she found it, bringing to life fictional characters I think of to this day:

Nothing beats the grain of tiger oak or quarter sawn. This table has soooo much history… it gives me goosebumps. When you scrape off the layers of dirt, you see the marks left from the previous owners; Uncle Lou’s cigarette embers, scrapes from the kitchen knife where Granny cut up apples. I envision all of the homework that was done, the decisions that were made, and of course the meals that were eaten…

Six months later, we found some press-back chairs from Bernie’s Nearly New Shoppe.

1930's press back chairs

That, once again, Andi artistically transformed into a thing of beauty.

Painted Chairs

The end result has been more than worth the mild inconvenience of not having a table to eat at, or only having patio chairs to sit on for almost a year.

Kitchen table

Andi’s also helped us in oh so many ways, imagine how we can transform our house into a home we can nestle down in for years to come.

She even created Miss Prague for us — a playful moniker given to an old buffet that she revived with a meaningful colour palette inspired by our recent trip to the Czech Republic. You can’t buy that at a local box store.

Miss Prague

I’m done with hanging my hat. I love the beauty and creativity that now surrounds us thanks to those who are giving so much of themselves and their talents to create the home we’ve always dreamed of. At the end of the day, a house is merely the sum of material goods that provide lodging, but a home is the sum of the experiences of those who give it their energy and their love along the way.