My House, My Idiot Self
There’s a book in what Frances Mayes didn’t write ” trust me.
Mayes is the author of the best-selling book-cum-movie “Under the Tuscan Sun.” The book recounts Mayes’ renovation of a charming, sun-baked villa in the region of Italy that made dipping bread in olive oil so popular. “Under the Tuscan Sun” is the kind of text you reach for during a bipolar moment in February. Not only is it set in a balmy locale, but it also has a romantic plot line: Mayes transformed her house and achy-breaky heart with the help of her silent, enigmatic handyman, Ed.
My husband and I recently bought a charming old house in the Berkshires ” the region of New England that made Lyme disease so popular. My fixer-upper is the reason I am now convinced that Mayes, when she wasn’t picnicking among the Etruscan ruins or uncovering ancient frescos beneath the painted walls of her living room, was a head case. My own story certainly isn’t the stuff of romantic blockbusters. But my tale might make for an interesting movie, because it involved many mysteries.
One of them was Stella.
We’d just moved in when the calls started. I was peering into the dark void of a one-time waste pipe hole in the dining room floor. The phone rang, and I had to wade through Styrofoam peanuts to find it.
“Is Stella there?” the caller asked.
“Wrong number,” I said. But the calls for Stella kept coming.
I went to Sears to get a new washing machine to replace the prototype Speed Queen that came with the house. The Sears salesman ” who arranged to have the historically designated Speed Queen hauled off to the National Appliance Museum ” asked for directions to my house. He laughed when I told him to deliver to a pink house.
“Not a bright pink,” I explained. “A beige pink, really.”
Here in the land of white clapboard and stately green shutters, pink is a little risque. Your interior can explode with chintz and noisy toile, but paint your siding pink and you’ve made quite a little statement. I’m not sure what that statement is yet, but it makes people laugh.
One of the biggest mysteries surrounding my charming old house is why I bought it in the first place. I think it was the Juliet porch. A Juliet porch is a covered balcony rimmed by a balustrade. This balcony and the big magnolia tree on the property appealed to my Southern side. (Technically, I’m not from the South, but I do have a Southern name and an abiding love for humidity, fried foods and bourbon.) It also could have been that the house has a marble fireplace and original bull’s eye moldings around its oversized doors and windows.
Its structure, the real estate agent told us, was sound; in real estate parlance this is known as “having good bones.” We soon discovered that this is the Berkshire translation of the Colorado term “handyman’s special.” It’s a pity that my husband and I temporarily forgot that we don’t know which end of a hammer to pound the screw with.
Also, there was a sign on the front of the house that said “Magnolia.” (Note: Houses with pretentious names are catnip to ripe fools who think they belong in the South.) Mayes’ villa came with the name Bramisole, which is Italian for “sun-baked crap heap.”
The stinking truth, if you must know, is that I agreed to buy what became my house because I never actually saw it. My husband, who had seen the house twice, briefly, took photos with a digital camera and e-mailed them to me. Once I got a look at the Juliet porch and the magnolia tree, it was all over. “Let’s take it,” I told him. Mayes wrote that buying her villa was akin to falling in love. I certainly was impetuous, infatuated, and dumb as a mollusk.
“Are you sure you don’t want to see it first?” he asked warily.
He’d sent pictures of other houses, hellish places with shag carpets, mildewed basements and faux wood paneling in the rec rooms. “I don’t need to see it,” I told him.
And this is why I am now a legend in Berkshire real estate circles. It is why the occasional perfect stranger, who upon hearing my name, doubles over with laughter and says, “You’re the lady who bought that pink house without seeing it first.”
In addition to taking calls for Stella at all hours, I took the occasional, puzzling call from people who wanted to know if I was “THE COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS.”
One man shouted it so loudly that I had to hold the phone away from my ear.
“No,” I said.
“ARE YOU SURE?”
“YOU GOTTA BE KIDDIN’ ME.”
Among the smaller mysteries of the pink house was the interior paint. Many of the inside walls wear cheery, fruity colors like lemon, peach, grape and raspberry. I liked the colors, but the technique was insane. The painters splashed paint everywhere ” onto trim, switch plates, radiators, floors and even the marble fireplace. In some places the color stopped without reason, as if the painter simply had given up, or the party had ended.
The dining room is a palimpsest of insanity. Here, someone painted over a peeling floral paper border with red paint, instead of removing it. When plain old paint didn’t cover the border, the mysterious painter then attempted to cover it with gold paint. I deduced there might have been more than one painter because some walls were rolled expertly while adjoining walls were swirled wildly. The guest bedroom was an experiment in faux technique, one that seemed to involve kitchen sponges and micro dots.
“Children painted these rooms,” I told my husband conclusively, “or drunks.”
Like Ed, the wise and enigmatic foil for loony-tune Frances Mayes in what could have been called “This Old Villa,” my spouse said nothing. Men learn quickly that when confronted with a woman whose nesting plans have gone awry, it is best to keep your head down and your nose clean.
“Is this Stella?” the man on the phone wanted to know, like so many before him.
“No,” I wailed. “Stella doesn’t live here anymore.” Never mind that Stella had never lived at my address.
“This is the police ma’am. We’re trying to find her.”
This development sat me up straight. Was Stella, whom I imagined to be a woman of a certain age, in some sort of trouble? Had she missed a bridge game? Was she pinned under an armoire? I knew a few things that could possibly help the police: She used to have my old number; many, many people were interested in chatting with her, and she was a Sears customer. Perhaps she was wanted for criminal acts and wanton negligence while in possession of a paintbrush.
The cop turned out to be my neighbor.
“Oh, you’re the one who bought that pink house,” he said. I thought I heard him laugh.
The house is a Queen Anne Victorian. Queen Annes have large, steeply pitched roofs, patterned shingles, bay windows and an innate neediness for paint and maintenance. Naturally, our house needed “a little work” (“Really, all it needs is a coat of paint,” the real estate agent had cooed oh-so-hellishly-long-ago), and this required experts: fence men, carpenters, glass repairmen, plumbers.
There aren’t many truisms in this life, but this is one of them: Parents of little children do not want to hear lead-paint abatement specialists clucking their tongues and whistling with dismay, as ours did. Lead paint is a big problem in old homes in the East. If your children eat the paint chips or inhale the dust, it can make them permanently dim. Our real estate agent underplayed the lead problem just a wee bit. I can’t blame him because, as I mentioned earlier, I never actually saw the house.
I’d never been to the Berkshires, either. The mountains here are gentle and often dreamily draped in fog. The towns, with evocative names like Stockbridge, Lenox and Sheffield, are antique-stuffed darlings. Just beyond the towns lie red barn farms and glassy lakes. It’s no wonder that half of Manhattan wants a house here. This is why tradesmen are in hot demand. One handyman, who charged $30 an hour, told he me was booked until late winter.
Meanwhile, we made lists and acquired tools. We would, we decided, do a lot of the work ourselves. But one thing we did not acquire was skills. It took three attempts to install a toilet paper holder. You can say what you want about Frances Mayes (that big fat omitter) and Ed (that mute lug), but they had skills. We were brought to our knees by the task of hanging a painting on an ancient lath-and-plaster wall. While author Mayes expressed delight about home repair tasks, I wanted to drink bourbon and punt my Realtor off the Juliet balcony.
Speaking of booze, I’d like to share my own drink recipe with you. I may be as bright as a hambone, but I’m generous. Sure, Frances Mayes published recipes in “Under the Tuscan Influence,” but ask yourself: Would I rather have Rabbit with Tomatoes and Balsamic Vinegar, or a refreshing, easy-to-make beverage?
Pink House Punch
Directions: Find the box you labeled “booze.” Pour two jiggers (whatever that means) of Kentucky bourbon into a glass over ice. If you can’t find Kentucky bourbon, the stuff from South Dakota will do. If you can’t find a glass, use whatever is handy, such as the plastic top from the shaving cream can. If the ice cube tray in the fridge dates back to the ’60s, as mine does, skip the ice. Swirl drink as you ponder wisdom of recent decisions. Drink. Repeat as needed.
“Is this the Commonwealth of Massachusetts?”
For once, the caller wasn’t shouting, so I was nice to her.
“No,” I said. “You have a very, very wrong number.”
“Are you getting a lot of these calls?”
I admitted as much.
“Well,” said the lady. “Someone named Karen has a business card with this number on it. She lists your number as her voice mail.”
I groaned. “She works for the state?”
“For the Office of the Hearing Impaired.”
I groaned again, thanked the woman and returned to my to-do list. Among the many Magnolia demands were curtains. I found a store in the Yellow Pages listed under “Window Treatments” and rang them.
ME: Do you sell curtains?
ME: Oh, ha-ha. No, curtains.
MAN: (irritated) Do we sell chickens?
ME: No, no curtains. KUR-TINS. Not chickens.
MAN: (huffily) We do not sell chickens!
ME: Curtains, curtains! The things you hang on windows! WINDOWS!
MAN: (long pause). We certainly do. You’ll have to talk to Barry, and he’s out to lunch.
I did not call Barry. If anyone was out to lunch, it was I. Time for some more Pink House Punch.
Over the course of 120 years Magnolia has been through a lot of changes. One Sears man (one of my new friends, all of whom are in the building trades), spent part of his childhood in my house. My laundry room, he said, was a kitchen during the 1970s. This explained the disco-pattern linoleum flooring. The previous owners of the house were downright saintly in their patience and vision. The house they bought was awkward and gloomy. They reconfigured a bathroom that opened into the dining room. They moved windows and doorways to create light. They scraped and repainted the once red-and-green kitchen.
Sometimes, this evolution had strange consequences. The refrigerator now lives in an old doorway, and its rump protrudes onto our basement stairs. The carpenters, plumbers, and handymen who tromp through our house think the fridge is hilarious.
The enormous dip in the kitchen floor is also a big roar. “I can’t believe the building inspector missed this,” said one ponytailed carpenter, walking along the mysterious ditch and slapping his thigh.
“This isn’t gonna be easy to fix,” he crowed. I’m sure he was already planning to buy a new boat.
The kitchen ditch ” along with the lead paint, gothic basement, painted-shut windows, unventilated stove and maddening array of bug-filled Chinese-paper-lantern light fixtures ” is why I often sang this ditty to the tune of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” (sing along with me now):
You’re so dumb, you probably bought a house without lookin’
You’re so dumb, you probably bought a house without lookin’
You’re a dumb-ass, ain’t you? Ain’t you?
Over the course of a few months, a few mysteries have been solved. One day I got an urgent voice mail message urging Karen at the COMMONWEALTH to contact “Jeanette” because “something important had happened.” Something important! It could have been any number of things! A birth or a death, a winning Lotto number, the discovery of Stella’s whereabouts! I called Karen via a relay operator. She was apologetic and couldn’t explain why people were calling me. She said she’d notify the state.
“Whatever happened to Stella?” I asked my cop neighbor.
“Oh, who the hell knows,” he said. “I think she showed up.”
The wild paint job? I think it’s best not to know. The more I look at it, the more I think it was a case of unrestrained joie de vie. Most important, the mystery about why I bought the house is starting to unravel.
Not long ago, a friend (one actually not in the building trades, but who bears the battle scars of recently having wrestled his own Victorian monster into the 21st century) sat down in our living room, which looked like it had been stirred with a spoon. The windows were bare and dirty. The scratched floor was scattered with toys and the fireplace, which has no damper, stank of stale ashes. A gentle breeze wafted through the room from an un-insulated crevice, stirring up the spider infestation and loosening a few lead-laced paint chips.
“This house has a great feel,” he said.
Well, yes, it does.
Edith Wharton wrote that “a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms,” and Mayes, too, observed that a house is a metaphor for self. The pink house, like me, is aging, high-maintenance and has its dark corners. I’d also like to think it’s like me in other ways, too: warm, eccentric, and full of potential. I’ve come to love the moldy old charm bucket, and feel fortunate to have it.
“Where you are is who you are,” wrote Mayes. “The further inside you the place moves, the more your identity is intertwined with it. Never casual, the choice of place is the choice of something you crave.”
Former Aspen Times columnist Lou Bendrick now lives Down East amid the beauty and bounty of the Berkshires. Drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The Youth Art Expo will run Feb. 27 through March 14 at the Aspen Art Museum, showcasing work by young artists from Aspen to Rifle.