It is a bright September morning, and the weather has broken (as it always does, if briefly, after Labor Day) giving a hint of fall. I’m driving slowly through an old neighborhood, tourist-style, looking from porch to porch, block to block. I see a friend working in his yard, and I call through the open car window, teasing him about playing hooky on a work day.
He asks what brings me to this part of town, and I explain that I’m taking the long way to work, looking for a house in the process because we’re in the market for something bigger.
“You ought to buy that one,” he says, gesturing across the street. “It’s been on the market for a couple of years now, and you could probably get it for a song.”
I am eight months pregnant with our second child. I call the number on the For Sale sign and leave a message.
Two days later, the agent returns my call and explains that the house had been under contract, a long, tense negotiation that, ironically, fell apart the morning I’d left the message. She is heading out of town, the agent, to tend to some family business of her own, but if I really want to see the house she can probably arrange it.
It is a rainy Thursday afternoon (though possibly a Friday). I drive up the alley to the rear entrance of the house to meet Mary, the owner’s caretaker, who knows the house as well as anyone. (This is what the realtor has told me.) The front door has a series of complicated locks, Mary explains, one of which has no key, so the back door is the best way in.
Mary is old-school Southern, neatly dressed and wearing orthotic shoes, her silver hair beauty-shop fresh. She drives a silver Cadillac that has a church sticker on the back window and, I notice walking by it, an immaculate interior with a tidy black umbrella folded up on the front passenger seat.
“Jackie was born in this house, in 1916,” Mary says as she unlocks the door. “Lots of memories here.”
Jackie, 92 and suffering from Alzheimer’s, is the owner. This is her house, but no longer her home.
An overwhelming smell of mildew, dust, cats, cigarettes, and age greets me. I have made a mistake, I realize, and need a quick excuse to get out.
Then we walk through the swinging door into the breakfast room and back 100 years in time. Light and airy, this room is covered in a delicate wallpaper and framed with built-in cabinets that once, one could easily imagine, glittered with silver and crystal and china.
On the other side of the breakfast room is the dining room, fireplace on one side and pocket doors on the other, open to the front hall, living room, massive front door and grand staircase covered in red velvet carpet.
Even with the horrific smell and the pile of leftover clothes (so dirty and worn that even Goodwill wouldn’t take them), entering the hallway is like opening a storybook.
I don’t know if it was the look on my face or something I said, some sound that escaped, but I remember Mary smiling and starting to talk about Jackie.
“They had a farm out in Somerville, though it was mostly Mr. Jones who went there,” Mary began, “and on Jackie’s sixth birthday her daddy brought her a pony all the way from the farm, walked it right through that big front door and up these stairs to her bedroom.”
This is the first of many Jackie tales, some from Mary, some from neighbors, some that we would discover while renovating the house:
Jackie’s mother, imperious in her silk Dior dressing gowns, retrieving the morning paper. The Steinway grand in which they stashed money and, rumor had it, a pistol or two. The art studio in the attic, the darkroom in the basement. A secret liquor pass-through for parties during Prohibition. The wild lesbian Christmas parties on the front porch, in the years after Jackie’s mother died. A pair of Doberman Pinschers. Goldcrest cans. A christening gown, packed next to handwritten letters with New York postmarks. The legend of a Confederate flag, given to Jackie’s mother by her mother’s father, Captain Edmondson, for safekeeping.
It is Mary, I think, who convinces Jackie to sell the house to us. We make an offer on the same day as another family, people who have have never seen the house but who want to live close to their good friends who are renovating a house across the street. This family’s offer is higher, we learn later, but Jackie picks us. We negotiate the final contract from my hospital delivery room, and the house is ours.
“Just a spit-shine,” a contractor friend tells us when he gets a first look around.
We will remodel the kitchen, move in, and then do the rest room-by-room while we live there. This is our plan.
It is Veteran’s Day, cold and windy. Our daughter is one month old; our son is textbook toddler two.
We have owned the house for a month but haven’t spent much time in it until today, when a friend has offered to bring lunch and help us get started on the work.
She arrives, bags of hot food in hand, to find us standing dumbstruck in the entry hall, still in our coats and scarves, overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all. (When my friend tells her version of this particular story, she says it was cold enough inside the house to see breath.)
Because she is a good friend, she is quick to recognize what’s happening. “OK,” she says. “We are just going to find one thing to do today, and we’re going to do it. And then if we want to do a second thing, we will; and if not, then we’ll all go home and come back another day.
“But the first thing we’re going to do is turn on the heat.”
We snap to attention, find the thermostat, turn the dial, and hear a roar from the basement, like the sound of a freighter ship. Minutes later, the radiators clang to life, and slowly the huge house warms while we eat lunch.
The one thing we’re going to do, we agree, is remove the soft materials that hold smell: The heavy, blue damask draperies in the living and dining rooms, the red carpet on the stairs and in the library. We work all afternoon, hauling out nicotine and cat piss.
This is the beginning.