True to the period, the walls in the master bedroom were originally covered in wallpaper, glued directly to the plaster underneath. Instead of removing the wallpaper, Jackie (or, more likely, her mother) painted over it. At some point, Mrs. Jones (or, more likely, Jackie) added a layer of gold grasscloth to one wall in the main room and on top of the tile in the tacked-on toilet room.
The complexity of removing all of this paint-covered, 100+ year-old wallpaper played a large role in our continued avoidance of this room. We didn’t need the bedroom, and it was just easier to leave it closed and unattended. Whatever treasures might lie in waiting would have to continue to lie there.
There was enough archeology elsewhere in the house, anyway. Most of what had been left behind was in the basement and attic: Painter’s boxes and stacks of cotton paper; a trunk (empty) and an old, metal twin bed frame; an exquisite Danish modern side chair that needed some attention but that was in otherwise good shape, until one of the electricians decided it was just the right height to stand on so he could reach the ceiling above.
With the walls gone, the guts of the house yielded surprises, too: Goldcrest cans, chicken bones, bottle tops, and handwritten notes.
“What’s a ‘coon’?” Bernard asked, one day, about mid-way through the remodeling. He was reading from a piece of paper, a fragment of a letter, brown with age and torn around the edges. I asked him to repeat, to make sure I’d heard him correctly. I had.
“It’s a racial slur,” I explained. He nodded.
“That’s what I thought,” he said, ripping the paper into tiny shreds. “I think the people who lived in this house weren’t very nice people,” he added.
One fall day, after we’d sold our little clapboard house and the children and I had moved in with my mother, Bernard was staying full time at the new house, trying to finish the remodel. He was sitting on the front steps, resting for a few minutes, Bernard saw black sedan passing slowly by. The driver looked up at the house, and at Bernard, and decided to stop.
“This your house, son?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” Bernard answered.
“Lot of history in this house,” he offered. He had known the Joneses, though it wasn’t clear how. He said there had been a Steinway grand in the big living room, asked if the liquor pass-through was still there, wondered if we were interested in selling the mantelpieces or chandeliers (we were not).
Mr. Jones stored cash and guns in the piano, the man said, but all of that was probably long gone. What he really wanted to know was if we had found the flag.
Mrs. Jones, Homer’s wife and Jackie’s mother, was the grand-daughter of James M. Edmundson, appointed to command the 11th Tennessee Cavalry regiment under General Forrest. “That flag was hidden somewhere in that house. If you find it, son, you’ll never have to worry about money.”
Bernard told me the story that night when he called to check in, see how our day had been. I asked if he thought it was a true story. “Maybe,” he said, “but the house is pretty much torn apart, and I haven’t seen anything that looks like a flag.” That, we agreed, was a relief in every way.
By the time we moved in, months later, the house was mostly purged and painted, with the exception of the master bedroom, which we ignored. Shortly after closing on the house, we’d held a house blessing, inviting the neighbors (many of whom we didn’t really know, yet) to join us going room by room and reciting the liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer. It was a feeling, not anything specific then, that the house needed a fresh start. The two years of excavation and reconstruction that followed proved that feeling to be true.
When we started in earnest to tackle the master bedroom, 14 1/2 years after we moved in, we didn’t expect any new discoveries. But under the layers of painted wallpaper on the chimney, we found a largely-illegible, penciled note that had been written directly into the plaster — directions, from what we could decipher, for installing the mantel.
And somewhere (I’m still not sure exactly where), Bernard found a carved-wood laughing Buddha. Every day we worked on the room, right before we got started, Bernard said, “You have to rub Buddha’s belly, for good luck.” I laughed and shrugged him off. “I’m serious,” he persisted, “after everything we’ve been through with this house, we need a little good luck.”
This post is part of a series about our renovation of a house built in 1905 that we bought in 2003 from the woman who lived in it for 91 years. The first post in this series is “Jackie’s House.”