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Centenarian house gets a visitor

February 21, 2010


I came home one day last October to find Chris in the front yard, leaning on our rake, hunched down and looking through the window of a car, talking with two ladies inside.  The driver, Colleen, was the daughter-in-law of her 90-something passenger, Phyllis Doxey McAffee. Mrs. McAffee had lived in our house as a young girl.

We invited them in for an impromptu tour.  Mrs. McAffee peered into our office and saw her parents’ bedroom.  She saw herself at age 7 visiting her young parents there.  In the living room, she sat on our couch and quietly surveyed her surroundings.  It must be strange, being dropped into a place you last lived in 85 years ago, thinking of the people who were there with you and now are gone.

Our fireplace and front door were familiar, but not the kitchen, a crazy hodge-podge from maybe the ‘60s.  The door from the kitchen to the back yard made sense and Mrs. McAffee thought her mother’s wringer washing machine was in about the same spot where our contemporary one stands today.

Little Phyllis and her two sisters slept together in one bedroom; it’s our TV room now.  Behind the TV room, Phyllis’s two brothers slept in a very small space we call the bike room.  They would have had to troop past the girls to get there.

The upstairs of our house didn’t exist yet in Phyllis’s day, except as an attic.

The unsteady Mrs. McAffee wisely declined a trip up our treacherous steps, but she shared memories of her dad and brothers sleeping in the attic on hot summer nights.

Mrs. McAffee’s eyes settled on our dining room table where architect’s drawings were spread out.  We told her of our plans to improve her old attic.  She was happy for us, but she was understandably looking back, not forward.

One month after Mrs. McAffee’s visit, Chris and I moved all our stuff out of the upstairs to begin the project.  Since the day after Thanksgiving we’ve been sleeping in little Phyllis’s old bedroom, our heads near the window she used to open so she could quietly talk after bedtime with her best friend next door.

We’ve lived in our house 18 years.  I don’t know why one of its original residents popped by for a visit just now, but it was perfect timing. Mrs. McAffee’s family is the first one listed as owning our house, which was built in 1911.

Our upstairs remodeling project is the biggest thing Chris and I have taken on.  We feel like we’re giving a centennial gift of sorts to this old house of ours.

The upstairs in our day has been a dreadful space, reminding me of the British phrase “indifferently restored.”  When we told friends we were undertaking a total renovation of the upstairs, most people said the same thing:  “I don't believe I’ve ever been up there.”  There was a good reason for that; it was horrid.  Soon it will be wonderful and Chris and I will move back out of little Phyllis Doxey’s old bedroom.

We plan to enjoy the heck out of our new space, but without a doubt someday we’ll be gone and our house will provide a happy home for someone new.

Will they curse us for decisions we’re making now?  Will they wonder who on Earth put a window in the upstairs shower the way we wonder why there’s an exterior door from the office into our next-door neighbors’ driveway?  We’ll try to remember to stop by in our 90s and answer a few questions.

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Barb Guy is a regular contributor to these pages.

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