Once the former occupants were moved out, papers were signed, and our belongings moved into the attic and basement of our new home, renovations began in earnest. Our family stayed with Ramsey’s parents for a month while Ramsey and two carpenter friends ripped out wall paneling, dropped ceilings, old windows and an old stairway, then replaced it all with new sheetrock, new windows, and new stairs. We hired a man to clomp around our enormous new living room and the bedrooms in his strapped-on stilts and mud and sand the fresh sheetrock. My mom and a sister-in-law spent hours helping paint the bedrooms- a light, soft sea foam for Ramsey’s and my bedroom and, because we let the kids pick their own colors, a pale purple for the girl’s room and a dark turquoise for the boy’s room (I hated that color but I was trapped into it by own promise. I bided my time, though, and last Christmas repainted their room as part of a surprise makeover.). As the clock was winding down, Ramsey sanded down the hardwood living room floor and refinished it.
By the end of the month, I was so ready to move into our new home. Ramsey’s parents had been so gracious and generous to let us stay with them but I just wanted to be in my own home again. Finally the day arrived. Ramsey and our helpers wore stocking feet to prevent damage to the newly refinished living room floor and we sorted furniture and boxes out of the attic and basement into the rooms where they belonged.
The overwhelming task of unpacking had only begun when, a week and a half later, Ramsey had to leave for a work trip. This trip would be longer, more intense, and take him further than any others before- he was going to Vietnam for two and a half weeks. The morning the kids and I dropped him off to meet the rest of his group, I cried as I pulled out of the parking lot.
I certainly had plenty to keep me occupied while he was gone, though. My mom helped me tackle the monumental task of painting our enormous living room. First we primed the whole gargantuan thing, and then Mom began expertly cutting out around the ceiling with the paint- hideous, bright blue paint. I was horrified when I first saw it. On the paint chip it had appeared to be a distinguished, calm, slate blue. This was wild and raucous, jarring, bright light blue.
“It probably just looks bright because it’s surrounded by white,” Mom suggested optimistically. I was doubtful but agreed that maybe it would appear less obnoxious when there was less of a contrast. Besides, we’d already bought the paint.
That blue pissed me off every time I walked into my living room for the next two and a half years.
One morning shortly after Ramsey left for Vietnam, I made a horrifying discovery. The prior owners were taking their final revenge on us. Apparently their two ancient canines had housed more than mange and now our home was infested with fleas. I learned that fleas go into a hibernation state when they have no host available and the temperature is cool, so they’d been hiding out in the cracks and crannies throughout our old Colonial. Now that the weather was warming up and they had new prey to feast on- us- they were hopping, and in full force. Let me tell you, there is nothing more disgusting than picking fleas out of your four-month-old baby’s hair.
So now, in the midst of trying to unpack and cope with the kids alone, I sealed off the kitchen shelves with plastic, hauled the mattresses off the beds, and purchased flea bombs. Unfortunately, I underestimated the amount of bombs needed to saturate a house of our size, so my attempt only served to discourage the nasty little parasites, not eliminate them.
Somehow we survived until Ramsey returned home. The day after he got back, the fourth of July, we re-bombed the house while we attended the local fireworks display. This time we won.
Ramsey had brought gifts for us- each of the children received a Vietnamese outfit, the boys also got beautifully carved wooden swords and he gave the girls decorative little dolls. And for me- Ramsey had brought me an embroidery. A large, framed embroidery, so detailed that most people mistook it for a painting when they saw it. It detailed a vase full of flowers, all beautifully stitched on a background of blue silk. Silk the exact same vibrant blue as our freshly painted walls. Somehow, without having seen the new color of our living room, Ramsey had managed to match the background of the embroidery to the color of our walls as perfectly as if he’d taken a paint swatch with him. The embroidery was situated in a place of honor, set on the mantle above our new fireplace.
A couple of weeks after Ramsey had arrived home from his trip and we’d gotten more unpacking and settling in accomplished, my grandmother called. She wanted to know the street address of our new home. She had been talking with one of her neighbors in her building across town and had mentioned that we had recently moved to this street. Her friend had grown up in this neighborhood and was curious which house we’d moved into.
Small world that it is, of course this was the house that Edna’s parents had owned for thirty years. Their home had burned to the ground after Edna was born, and a contact Edna’s father had within the city government had told him about this house- a house possessed by the city because the former owners had neglected to pay their taxes. It was, even then, a fixer-upper, but Edna’s father was a carpenter, it was large enough to house their large and growing larger family, and they could afford it.
Edna and my grandmother came by to visit and see the old place and I took the opportunity to interview Edna. During the thirty years that Edna’s parents had owned the house, Edna’s father had made some major renovations- completely changing the layout, including moving a stairway and adding four feet onto the whole back of the house- and by the time they sold it the house had been in good shape. Edna was sad to see the state of disrepair the following owners had allowed it to fall into but was gratified to see the improvements we’d begun to make.
I told you Edna’s family was large but I didn’t mention how large. Edna was one of seventeen children who lived in this house. Some of the children slept in the attic and I can only imagine how cold it must have been to occupy that giant, un-insulated space during frigid New England winters.
Edna told us of stringing tin can phones across the street to her girlhood friend’s home, of the enormous vegetable garden they’d planted every year in the then empty lot next door, of coming home from school on her lunch break every day to hang out mountains of laundry that her mother had spent the morning washing. She told us that she never saw her mother sit down until she was an adult and I believe it.
When I first heard a few bits of Edna’s story over the phone, I could envision myself basing a novel on it, something heartwarming and Walton-ish. But, hearing more details in person, there were strong undercurrents of pain and sadness to the story that I couldn’t just ignore and didn’t want to deal with then. One of the sisters had died in childhood from a brain tumor that was missed until too late. Another sister had felt unwanted and never could come around to feeling accepted. The parents didn’t seem to have the loving bond that I wanted to base a story on and eventually sold the house after thirty years when they divorced.
I have several special reminders of our visit with Edna and of the family that lived here decades before we did. Edna brought copies of a number of photographs for us to keep. Black and white, they are like opening a time capsule when I look at them. There are photos taken in front of the fireplace mantle- our mantle. There is a photo of one of the brothers in his military uniform- and in our daughters’ bedroom, part of the floor is a board from his military trunk, labeled with “Sgt. Richard F. Holt” and our home’s address. If we ever get around to painting that floor, I have no choice but to leave that board unpainted. And there is one photo that was taken of the entire family as adults in front of the birch trees at the back of the yard, the same trees that we hang our hammock from in the summertime, and the same trees that I have only to glance from my desk-side window to see at this very moment.