On January 31, 2001 I slept on a threadbare carpet in an empty second floor room of what most people would think was a haunted house. There were noises in the night, damp drafts, mice scratching in the walls and attic. Lights worked at random according to some unrecognized pattern. A gloomy smell pervaded the place. The windows rattled and the timbers creaked. The ceiling sagged, creating a claustrophobic feeling as if at any moment the occupants would be crushed.
Such were the conditions of my night’s rest on January 31, 2001, the day Gary and I moved up to the country in Berks County, PA. Turns out the house wasn’t haunted after all. But then, it didn’t need to be. It was scary all on its own. The most frightening part was that we’d actually paid money for it. And we’d be paying for it for a long time to come, a mortgage being the monkey on your back that it is.
Saying it was a wreck of a house was an understatement. It had raised nine children in its heyday, but no one had bothered to update it since the time of diapers and acne. It had been sold at auction five years previously and the new owners had done little with it in that time. They got one room painted. Houses, being the sensitive creatures that they are, suffer when neglected. You’ve got to pay them attention or they get despondent and saggy.
The morning of February 1, we surveyed our latest family member, our house. The sheetrock was too thin. The ceiling too low. The paint too old. The exterior green with mold. The carpet was stained. The linoleum was cracked. There was no insulation in the walls. The toilet was backed up and you could see down to the kitchen from a hole next to the pipe. The neighbors stopped by to welcome us and in the coarse of a casual conversation explained about the huge black snake living in the basement. Apparently it liked it there because the cellar was as wet as a swamp most of the time.
Without saying a word we returned to our New York apartment, defeated, dejected, and appalled. We each in our own minds plotted ways for getting our money back.
You wonder why we bought it in the first place. Hadn’t we at least walked through before we plunked down the first payment? We did. But we didn’t look closely because we didn’t care. We bought the property because it came with 32 acres of beautiful Berks County rolling hills. That’s what we bought. The house was an afterthought. But it was the first thing we looked at on that freezing February day. The honeymoon was over and we couldn’t help but wonder what we’d been thinking when we bought this sorely used hag.
A week later we returned refreshed, sobered, and resolute. The house was just as rundown and creaky as when we left, but now we knew what we were up against. We remembered why we’d bought the property and that it was winter now, a good time to do a few repairs, get the house in order. When springtime rolled around we’d have plenty of time and good weather to enjoy the land.
Seven years later we finally finished. Seven years of weekends devoted to commuting from our little apartment in New York to our little house just outside of Bernville, PA. I won’t go into all the work that went into turning this shack into a house. There are plenty of war stories at the DIY sites detailing replacement of ill-fitting windows, fighting with wainscoting and oak paneling, installing birch cabinets, fixing of plumbing, the removal of attic insulation along with all the animals (living and dead) entombed there. These are the sorts of things everyone does when they decide to buy fixer-uppers.
Ours is a small house without much room for the oversized furniture inherited from Italian ancestors with big tastes. So we ditched the hulking furniture and installed built-in clothing cupboards to save space.
We turned four small bedrooms into two. One, a normal sized room, and the other a huge, ostentatious wrap around parlor with attached closet. There’s a door leading off this room that has an ostentatious wrap around deck for taking in the ostentatious sunrise. If you’ve ever experienced a Berks sunrise on a wraparound porch, you know just how bodacious it is.
A bodacious, ostentatious sunrise is perfect for an idyllic summer. For idyllic winters, we added a couple of wood-burning stoves. One downstairs for heating if need be and the other in the bedroom upstairs for romance. We didn’t need either one of them as we’d discarded the old forced air system with its big honkin’ ductwork to a more efficient propane system that uses demure cast iron baseboards. But who doesn’t like sipping wine in front of a fire on a wintry day with flakes big as saucers whiting up the countryside? Snugglies anyone?
After seven years we were finally able to concentrate on the Berks rolling hillside. We started cultivating our fields. We put in 40 fruit trees, 60 blueberry plants, a bunch of blackberries and raspberries. We had a few areas perfect for gardening, about three acres all together. Over the years we’ve enjoyed growing almost every kind of edible what-have-yous our area is known for: squash, cucumber, cabbage, carrot, broccoli, celery, melon, spinach, lettuce, potato (sweet and regular) and of course tomato. At one point the garden did so well we started selling tomatoes to a small green grocer in New York. We’d pick ’em on Sunday evening, deliver them Monday morning, pick up the money Monday afternoon. They sold that fast.
We overhauled a crumbling barn and gave it a new roof and three stalls. We added a riding ring and tack house. We fenced in about five acres and bought horses. When we finally moved to the house permanently we added goats, cats, and a dog to the mix.
By that time there was nothing to do on the house but finish work. The final touches included tile mosaics, a couple of stained glass transoms, and lined bamboo blinds to control temperature: warm in winter and cool in summer.
We settled into a routine of Sunday breakfasts in front of a fire, afternoon rides with the horses, and home grown vegetables for dinner.
But retirement comes with new plans and overturned lives. My partner has decided to follow a lifelong dream of European travel. Me, though, I need to stick around for a while. Alas, a thirty-two acre farm is a lonely place for a single person. We have put our one-time haunted house, now full-time masterpiece on the market. I will stay here until it sells and be misty eyed when I finally sign the papers to turn over the keys to the new dreamers.
I kind of hope it takes a while. I want a long goodbye. The hallway needs a touch of paint. I noticed a cracked piece of molding that should be repaired. I’d like to remove the cat scratches from the back door.
A house needs care and constant looking after. This is a good one. It has great bones. The original builders back in the 1930s put in a stone foundation. And the wood back then was thicker and stronger than what is used today. With the care we put into our overhaul, I know this place will be around for quite some time. Longer than you or I will be. Regardless, it is time to move on to the Next Big Thing.
See you in the afterlife.