Blue Lake: A Last Resort

I read this to a packed house at Dell’Arte on Saturday night for the event called Blue Lake: A Last Resort. It was written to be read aloud by me; hopefully you can hear my voice.

It’s a strange thing – buying someone’s home. Not just buying a house that’s on the market, but buying somebody’s home — their home that has to be sold, a short sale, a death in the family. The remaining family still living in the house, still very much living in the house. It’s a small town, so we know the owners, we know their kids, their relatives, their story.

It’s a strange thing – looking at their home, and thinking of all the history there, and how much we plan on changing it once it’s finally ours. Being in escrow, walking by their dumpsters and having to stop myself from peeking in there to see all the history they’re throwing out. They are so exposed on all of the walk-throughs, inspections. People poking in their attic.

It’s a strange thing to be making small talk while planning to tear out their layers of carpet, all the while piecing together their juicy story. Their four generations who lived here.

It’s a strange thing to convince myself that this seemingly ramshackle house has good bones, and that it will make a sturdy home to raise the kids in, as the previous owners’ family is falling apart.

Before I became a mother, I did as some young people do, sometimes making small decisions and sometimes making no decision, passive in most things, floating along and finding myself here or there or where ever.

I found myself in a lot of places.

In some ways, I moved so much because I was searching for home. In some ways, I was still running away from home. In June 2000, I brought my baby to Humboldt to visit my sister and her husband. They drove us out 299 to go to a river spot out near Willow Creek. When passing by Blue Lake, a town I had never heard of, my sister pointed and said, “That is where you want to live.” I had no way of knowing she was right.

This old old house that we bought was built in 1893 or 1903 – no one knows for sure — but it doesn’t have much historical importance. There isn’t a plaque on the door declaring the building a historical landmark. The architecture of the house is insignificant — a late Victorian, with much of the original accents lost in a fire or removed when they put on the vinyl siding. Yes, vinyl siding. And there is very little character in the property — enclosed by a chain link fence and not even a tree to speak of. The only claim to fame is that the Worthingtons lived in the house for a time in the early 20th century.

But the house, like any old house in a small town, has so many stories buried in the walls, speaking from the attic, and hidden in the weeds outside.

After escrow closed and we were madly working to make the house livable for us, I stood on a ladder in the old man’s bedroom, scrubbing the walls. There was sadness in that room, so much that it made my eyes sting and my knees weak.

I stepped off the ladder. I don’t know much about spirits or ghosts, but I knew his energy was there. And I knew how much he loved his wife, who had passed years before. I whispered, “Mr. Caywood — this is going to be a happy room. We’re painting it yellow and filling it with the kids’ toys. This will be their place to play.”

Maybe the sun moved, or maybe a cloud passed by — whatever it was, it brightened the room, and I got back on that ladder and kept scrubbing the walls.

This house… the families that lived here… I know secrets. Stories that I could tell.

But I won’t.

Because it’s a big responsibility to own an old house in a small town. A big responsibility, not because it will need a new roof as it invariably will, and not because of the rats in the compost or the bats that find their way in through the walls and under the baseboards and maybe they’re rabid and are biting my children while we sleep… but a big responsibility because of the grand extended family that has now become a part of ours — connected through the history of the house.

Last year I posted an ad on Craigslist to give away some of the rose bushes. 27 rose bushes proved to be too much for me to maintain. One of the people that came to dig up some bushes (he happened to play softball with my husband on an opposing team) is married to the granddaughter of the previous-previous owner before us. These roots go deep and spread far.

When I prune the rose bushes, I often think of Mr. Caywood. I don’t really know what I’m doing with the clippers, so I pretend he’s helping me along. I met him once at his house, years ago, when my son was friends with his great-grandson. I think of him like an extra grandpa, and ask for his blessing when we make any changes to the garden. I thank the old man for planting all the flowers and bulbs around the yard. He loved the garden.

I don’t remember any flowers here that summer we were in escrow. But every year since, it seems that new types flowers bloom in the yard. Spanish bluebells, snapdragons, white and purple calla lilies, lilacs, peonies, more snapdragons, scarlet pimpernel, star of bethlehem, irises, naked ladies. The dahlias bloomed last summer. They came up out of nowhere.

We had planned to tear down the garage. It seemed it was falling down anyway, and it was full of junk. But you know… there are Chris’s handwritten notes on the garage wall. Phone numbers he jotted down while repairing bikes at the workbench. Just last week we found an old faded picture of his wife when she was young.

All those big changes we planned on the house — we’ve gotten some of it done, but it turns out that a lot of it doesn’t need to be changed at all. We’re not tearing down Chris’s garage. We’re fixing it up. And when I’m in the garden, I’m always careful when I dig.

The house has changed us so much more than we have changed it. And it is such an honor to own an old house in a small town.