20: A Gift from the Past

20: A Gift from the Past

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Home Sweet Home

A Gift from the Past

Men work together… whether they work together or apart.

~Robert Frost

We married each other after bitter divorces. Our families thought we were crazy to jump back in so soon. “Give the wounds time to heal,” people said, but we were anxious to begin our life together. Love would repair the damage.

On the practical side, lawyers, ex-spouses, and broken-down cars had drained our savings, and we needed a house big enough for four children — immediately. That made us real estate bottom feeders. Most houses we inspected had been abused by previous owners. One didn’t even have a kitchen sink, just a hole in the floor where the pipes had once been. These houses were scarred with broken woodwork, rotten porch steps, and holes in the walls from things thrown in anger. Staircase railings wobbled at the touch. The houses smelled like bad relationships.

“I’m sorry we can’t buy anything better,” I told Carol.

“We have each other,” she said, snuggling close. “Home is where we are.”

Among the wrecks was an estate sale far from the city. It would be a long commute. The grayed siding had never been painted, and the kitchen counter must have dated from the 1940s, with its black rubberized surface and curtains covering the shelves under it instead of doors. The bathroom — a single bathroom for the six of us — also had only a curtain, no door. Some wallpaper was peeling, and the furnace wheezed.

But no one had smashed into the walls or railings or taken a crowbar to the sills to pry open a stuck window. There were even beautiful features. The living room had a shiny new hardwood floor and a massive fieldstone fireplace. And above the ugly kitchen counter was a set of fairly new cherry cabinets. It was better than anything else we saw, so we snapped it up that same day.

The most immediate problem was the weatherbeaten barn that sagged like the back of an old horse. The entire structure swayed when you walked on the second floor. We wouldn’t have to worry about that for long as it turned out, for it would collapse completely under our first winter’s snow. The house was a blend of the old and new, just like us. It had been worn down by time and use, but the owners had not mistreated it. The elderly Ingrahams who had lived there for fifty years had made improvements when they could as they raised their big family. They must have envisioned the totally renovated home they would create someday. But when their children finally were independent, the couple was too old to finish the job. Carol and I were sure we could bring the house to its full potential.

One Ingraham spouse had a sudden stroke and died, and the other passed within days. Stunned, their children held an auction. The house had only been on the market a few days when we bought it, so many of the Ingrahams’ possessions remained: old salves and pills in the bathroom, crumbly sponges and half empty bottles of cleaning solutions under the kitchen sink, a well-worn armchair, and in the back of a closet, ancient board games from half a century earlier and a few Christmas decorations in a crushed box.

I was uncomfortable; it felt as if we had elbowed out the elderly couple. We had bought a family’s home, not an empty building. The couple’s ghosts seemed to hover, wary of our invasion. Did they disapprove of us? The nerve of strangers wearing rubber gloves and making faces when we threw out their medicines and salves. I just felt unworthy spying on their secret ailments. After all, they were a wholesome, traditional family who never divorced.

Yet we had young children like they did and our own salves and pills. Our own worn chair sat in the corner where theirs had been. When our four children thundered upstairs or rolled screeching down the little grassy hill outside the kitchen, it must have sounded like it had fifty years ago when the Ingrahams first moved in. The house was getting another chance. Why not us?

Our kids found a rubber replica of “throw up” in a closet and began giving dramatic, gagging performances as they flung it onto the floor at our feet. One night they discovered a Parcheesi game with split corners and a worn board. “Look Dad!” they yelled as if it were buried pirate treasure. “The Game of India!” We sat around our chipped kitchen table and rolled dice from the tumbler. The kids ganged up on Dad, of course, and laughed triumphantly as they sent my pieces back to start. Exaggerating my groans made them enjoy it more. In the kitchen I imagined the couple’s ghosts watching us. Did they remember how their kids and grandkids had thrown up that fake vomit and played Parcheesi with them? Did it reassure them that we were not so different after all? A long line of owners had kept this house alive over the last 100 years. Now it was our turn to rebuild the house — and our family.

When I slapped the first coat of red paint on the bare siding, I knew the old man would be relieved. When I built new kitchen cabinets to match the cherry cabinets and dragged out the black rubberized counters, I could almost hear Mrs. Ingraham sigh, “Oh! At last!” That lovely ghost offered us a housewarming gift in spring when her bulbs and flowers blossomed — tulips, crocus, snowdrops, rose of Sharon, lilacs, Jack-in-the-pulpit, and so many others. Forget-me-nots covered the backyard in a bed of blue mist — a gift of life from the dead. I mowed around the flowers to let them sing until they withered. We would not forget. When my wife revived the herb garden and I salvaged some red oak cabinets broken by the collapsed barn roof and built a chest from the intact boards, I knew the Ingrahams would approve. They knew how to make the best of what they had.

We became friends with the dead couple, for tending things together creates bonds. So what if they were dead and we were alive? The house needed all of us. Maybe I’d dig out one of their unbroken Christmas ornaments from the closet of treasures and hang it on the Christmas tree for them. There would always be room for those ghosts. My wife and I wanted to build our marriage better than the first ones, and I was glad to have that house be the place it happened.

~Garrett Bauman

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