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Southern Stories
Jan 27/17

Storm Damage: Rebuilding a Loved Home Posted by: Aaron Stearns | 0 Comments

Our house turns 50 this year, and the old broad is looking pretty good for her age. We hadn’t intended to fall so completely in love with her. She’s kind of high maintenance.

She was built well from the start and loved well by those who’ve lived here. We’re only her third owner. Funny thing about this house though, she seems to own all of us, rather than the other way around.

In April of 2011, some terrible storms and tornadoes that killed at least seven people came through our neighborhood. Fortunately, we were not hurt, but our poor house took a beating when a tree fell through the back half of it. And so we began a 400-day adventure (yes, we counted) involving insurance companies, lawyers and contractors that the Greeks could turn into a mighty fine play.

The day after the tree fell, we were standing in our back yard staring at it because that’s just what you do when an enormous tree is where part of your house used to be. A couple appeared in our backyard and introduced themselves. He grew up in our house, and his parents were the original owners.

His wife grew up in the row of houses behind ours. They used to blink flashlights back and forth at each other from their windows at night. They were devastated by the destruction. His late mother absolutely loved this house.

I’m not sure what happened to us in that moment, but there was a shift in the tectonic plates of our hearts. This was no longer just a shelter to us. It was our home. We promised we would rebuild. We told him we loved the house too, and we really meant it.

The difficult thing about repairing and rebuilding a 50-year-old house is where to stop. Do you refinish all the hardwoods since you’re already doing most of them? Do you freshen up the paint on the front, since you’re already painting the back. At some point, you have to just quit fixing things or you’ll bankrupt yourself $250 at a time.

This is made worse by the fact that apparently, five decades ago, no one standardized anything. You can’t just replace a door or window. It must be reframed or custom ordered. Everything is just slightly off from what is sold now. And no two anythings are the same anywhere in the house.

Simple tasks like rekeying all the exterior doors involved a locksmith, two carpenters, a painter and at least 42 conversations where the contractor explained to me the difference between circles and ovals. Having done fairly well in Kindergarten, I found it slightly insulting. These discussions usually ended with me saying something like, “I understand the problem here. It’s been thoroughly explained to me. What I’m paying you for is a solution to my problem.” This was never a popular response.

This is why the fireplace did not get finished to my desired specifications. What I presume to be the original doors are still in place. They are brass. They are tacky. I hate them. (Click here for a quick DIY on sprucing up your tacky brass mantle!)

The second owners of the house built a beautiful mantle by hand. We met them when our children ended up on the same soccer team. His wife told us behind where it’s hung, in a small opening in the brick, is a tiny time capsule with all of their names. We couldn’t remove the mantle. It’s part of the story of our house’s people.

Our house’s people didn’t just show up metaphorically, they showed up in person. I’m told on a couple of occasions, the original owner, an ancient man now, came by to check on the rebuilding progress. He reared his children here and has great respect for the place. He would bark at the workers to mind their business because, “a family lives here.”

When they repainted the walls of the living room, they painted the brick and mantle. I asked to replace the fireplace doors. Our contractor didn’t like that idea. “I mean, I could replace the doors. But, you see, to get the old doors off and the new doors on, I’ll have to turn the entire house upside down and rearrange all your cabinets. That could take three more months.” I’m paraphrasing.

I don’t actually remember what he said, but the upshot was the doors stayed. They stayed and looked terrible. So I went to my neighborhood paint store for some help. Turns out, you can paint brass.

The end result is so much cleaner and more polished. I don’t cringe every time I walk through my living room. It’s really remarkable how big a difference such a small change can make in the look and feel of a room.

It’s funny to me how attached I’ve grown to this house. Before now, I never really cared where I lived. A house was a shelter, just a place to keep the rain off, nothing more.

Maybe it’s because we’ve been through so much together. Maybe it’s because she never stopped looking proud even when she was so deeply wounded. Maybe it’s because she’s difficult and quirky and has some signs of age. Maybe it’s because we’re her family now. But we love this house. Truly. Madly. Deeply.



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