Painting my way back in time…

How many layers of paint does this make since the first in 1941?      
2009…. how many people stood next to a sold sign in front of this house, proud to be the new owners?

Three days ago, I decided to paint my family room.  I’m still painting.  My paint brush has brushed itself right out of my family room, down the hallway, into the living room and is now debating on whether it should continue its journey with a stop off in the dining room and the kitchen.  I have found the perfect shade of white, which was no easy feat, as there are endless choices for what I used to believe to be a “non-color.”   I can’t seem to get enough of the magic it is leaving behind in its wake.  It feels like I’m painting on a layer of light and bright with each stroke of my brush.  My rooms are coming alive with each brush stroke and I am as well.

My three day immersion into this continually growing project has become far more than changing the colors of my walls.  As my paint brush cuts in every door frame, baseboard,  electrical outlet and window frame, I can’t help but wonder about all the times this exact same process had been done before me in this house.  My house was built in the 1941, so I’m guessing quite a few times.  It was my antiquated electrical outlets in my living room, which accept only a two pronged plug and that I continually have on my “need to update” list, that brought that thought to my attention.

How many people have returned to these rooms in their memories?  The very same rooms that I’m now painting?   How many families have written down this address as their own and given the same directions that I have to people on how to find it?    The walls hold such a rich history of people and experiences that I couldn’t help but start to wonder about the specifics.  What joys were experienced in these rooms?  What heartbreaks?  What celebrations?  Did toddlers take their first steps here?  Did teenagers storm out the front door here in anger because of a disagreement with their parents?  Was there a Dad who sat up late in the front room that recently went from sage to white, worried and waiting for his daughter who ignored curfews?  What did his bathrobe look like?  On a side note, if anyone who lived or is living in the house I grew up in has ever wondered such a thing, I can tell them yes, often, and it was red plaid.  How many new babies were brought through this front door to ever expanding families?  How many kids have climbed out the upstairs bedroom window, as my son did several times, to sit on the roof and look at the stars?   Even though I’m in my 7th year of living here,  for the first time I’m feeling a sense of belonging and pride at being the newest member to a long string of people who were once owners that started forming in 1941.  It’s a club I joined whose members I will likely never meet, but oddly, think of often.

I have to wonder about the original owners of my house and how excited they must have been to be living in this brand new subdivision called “Leawood.” Did they get to help decide where to plant the 3 oak trees that are now massive and if so, did they wonder what they’d look like in 75 years?  And who would be enjoying their shade along with the tremendous job of leaf removal?  Who, in the long line up of families before me, decided to install a bomb shelter in the basement?  Were they afraid?  Did it make them feel safe?  Did they go to the basement to sit in their new investment just to see what it felt like while secretly trying to get their money’s worth on a fear based investment?  Did they invite their neighbors over?  Or did their neighbors have their own bomb shelter to enjoy?  When I was showing my son the house shortly after buying it, he saw the bomb shelter in the basement and was excited that I bought a house with a “sauna.”   Well, not exactly, son.   It now houses my art portfolio, several large canvases and a smattering of miscellaneous items that I don’t know where else to put and yes,  it is kind of creepy,  but it’s also become a bit of an attraction for anyone who goes down to my basement.  I’ve seen more than one workman anxiously show off the space to another workman, as if he discovered it.

There are switches that turn on nothing, outlets that predate the 2 prong models with 4 tiny holes that have been painted over so many times that they’re almost camouflaged into the wall, an exterior light fixture with no switch and a light switch that I found in the back of an upstairs closet that turns on huge vapor light in the back yard that could light up the whole neighborhood if it was switched on.  Frustrating as they are, I’ve left the quirks alone as its easier than trying to fix them.  Besides,  they add a lot to the charm of the house.

I feel a strong sense of responsibility as the keeper of this little piece of history that I call home.    The family who lived here before me called it their home for 35 years and raised their family of 6 here, which I think about every Christmas when I have an extra 4 or 5 staying here and it feels like we are busting at the seams.  I don’t know anything about the family, short of what my neighbors have said in passing, but do know that they loved the house as they sent me a letter telling me so shortly after I moved in.  They wished me the same joy from the house that they had had for the past 35 years.  I know they are still in the area and often wonder if they slow down when they drive by and what memories come to mind for them if they do.  I love that they cared enough about the house they were leaving to share that with me and think they’d be happy with the way I’ve cared for it.

Shortly after I moved in, I found a set of blueprints in an upstairs bedroom closet.  It was for the “new” addition of a family room.  Although it blends nicely with the original home, it does feel a bit “newer” with higher ceilings, different flooring,  the addition of a few sky lights and updated electrical outlets.  According to the blueprints, that “new” addition, which is what I started calling it after I moved in,  was added in the early 1970’s.  I was still living in my childhood home in Olathe, KS, sharing a room with one of my sisters and making my twin bed every morning when the “new” addition in my house was added.  I suppose it may be time to drop the “new.”  That got me wondering about the house I grew up in and who is sleeping in that old room of mine now?  Do they ever wonder about who came before them?  Do they share the room with their sister?  Did they ever want a room of their own so badly that they moved their mattress into the small closet and called it home for almost 2 days?  Did they ever climb out the bedroom window when they were grounded to make their escape on a Saturday night?  I would tell them if they asked that yes, perhaps that did happen once.  Twice at the most.

This has been an easy house for me to feel a part of and although I didn’t raise my family here, nor did I have any kind of history with this house before I purchased it, I can easily see my kids in the breakfast nook eating their cereal before school.   The energy of these walls have embraced me from day one, making me feel so comfortable and familiar that I have to remind myself that it was someone else’s childhood home and story.  Not mine.

I must admit that hours and hours spent crouched on the floor with a dripping paint brush in one hand and a container of paint in the other,  has put my mind into a full imaginative cycle that is now starting to put faces and expressions and clothing on the people I imagine wandering through my home 75 years ago.  My son suggested the idea of leaving photos behind when you move from a place for the new owners.  Oh how I wish that had happened here.  Maybe it was too many Nancy Drew mystery novels read as a child or an overly active imagination, but I want to find that proverbial  trunk filled with clothes and photos and trinkets from the past.  I thought it was going to happen when after purchasing the house, I discovered in the garage a set of wooden pull down steps that led to the attic.  Again, too many Nancy Drew mysteries, but I truly thought I had found my treasure.  Sadly, there was no history-filled trunk, but there were some old windows, stacks of wood and other building materials and decades of dust.  I have since added my own collection of things to the pile of items I no longer need but am not quite ready to get rid of.

Through this slow, tedious, yet mindful process of transformation one brush stroke at a time, I feel like I’m giving something back to this little house that has given so much to me.  It’s feels like a hug to a large group of people that I have never met and most likely never will, but whose presence is with me every day and who I’m guessing would also want the best for a home they once called their own.

Since I started writing this, I’ve added 2 more days and 2 more rooms to this process.  I’ve also gone deeper into my imagination about the people and their life experiences that this house holds in its walls, but after several days of my immersion into history with a loaded paintbrush, I’m calling it done.  There’s a very thin line between thorough and obsessive and I’m starting to teeter a bit.  Oh, and I’m running out of walls.  The process of adding a new shade of light and clean and airy to my walls has has given me a new feeling of familiar with my with this place I call home– like we’ve known each other for a very long time.

Feathering nests and transition

I woke up a few nights ago in a mild state of orientation panic.  I had no idea where I was and none of my KS or CO cues seemed to be helping me.  My middle of the night reminders – the porch light from the building across the street from me in CO or the small light on my security system panel in my bedroom in KS,  are my grounding devices for the bouts of confusion I find myself in while still in a half-asleep state.  Last night I starred at the little green light on the security system panel and had no idea what it was.  This is not my first time experiencing this kind of confusion.  It happened almost nightly after returning home from one of my extended trips to Perú.  More than once I woke up with a heavy sweater on over my nightgown with no memory of putting it on.  Under a down comforter with the heat on, (it was winter after all), a heavy sweater was hardly necessary and I woke up hot and sweating through everything but the mysteriously added outer layer.  But it felt good, because it was familiar and what I had been accustomed to while living in the Peruvian heat and humidity.  I obviously wasn’t ready to leave Perú entirely and that was my makeshift way of keeping a little bit of me there.  I doubt I would have ever thought of such a simple way to ease into the transition had I been awake.

I know this night-time confusion will wane as I become more accustomed to living in two places, but for now it still feels a bit like a state line straddle to me with one leg in KS and the other stretching itself into Colorado.  I’ve learned the physicality of the east/west movement and am now working on the emotional leg of the journey.

The journey

 I’m a true blue, die hard nester,  and whether it’s my KS home, my CO home, a hotel room, a tent or my car,  if I’m going to be there more than 45 minutes, I will personalize, organize and feather the nest to within an inch of it’s homey life.  The end result is secondary to the process, which for me is where all of the gratification lies.  In simple terms, that means that lining up spices, organizing junk drawers and stacking sweaters are sporting events for me that make my heart beat a little bit faster.  It’s also the place I tend to go to for comfort and will find myself knee deep in clothes before I realize that what I’m doing is less about wardrobe organizing and more about working through a problem. I’m sure it makes little sense if you’ve not experienced this odd behavior, but if you have, no doubt you are shaking your head yes in solidarity with me.

The one person who understands this side of me more than anyone else I know is my sister, Susan, who has witnessed me nesting from Nepal, to Bhutan to Chile and Argentina and a scattering of places in between, because she’s been right there with me as we folded and stacked, arranged and rearranged in hotel rooms, cabins and several times in a tent.   Dogs pee their way around an area to mark their territory but we choose to mark our new territories with neat stacks of hiking pants,  jackets and shirts with boots and shoes lining up at the door in anticipation and the lotions and potions finding their place next to sinks or tucked away neatly in the corner of the tent.  Again, it’s less about the end result and more about the process for me as neat stacks soon become piles, then heaps after a couple of good digs, leaving you with a far bigger mess than you would have had had you simply left everything in the suitcase and pawed your way through it every morning for the goods.  But that’s OK, because that is normal for me and what I’ve become accustomed to.  I’m only speaking for myself here as Susan’s stacks remain stacks throughout, which is a goal I strive for but rarely achieve.

This same nesting sister rented a cottage in the Adirondacks for several summers while she was living in Montreal and I was fortunate to get to spend enough time there that it truly felt like home to me.  One rainy day, we had opted out of hiking and decided instead to entertain ourselves with what we could find in the house to do or read or make, which for me consisted of diving into a dog eared  Sears catalog from the early 1970’s.  If you were around during that era and saw pale polyester leisure suits in person, or better yet owned one (I’m speaking to the men here regarding ownership…), then no doubt thumbing through those pages would have had you just as captivated as it did me.  If I would have had a marker on hand, I would have enjoyed taking liberties with the photographs as someone who had gotten their hands on the catalog before me had, but instead, I enjoyed their handiwork, with some mental editing as I flipped through the pages.  Oh Sears, if you had any idea of how much you’ve entertained my sisters and me over the years with countless pretend shopping trips where money was no object and boyfriend selections made from page after page of clean cut models who loved hanging out together in suits.  Of course the stealth searches through the underwear section, both creepy and exciting at the same time, can’t be overlooked.  This is what happens when boredom sets in and you’re not card players.

While absorbed in polyester and bad haircuts, Susan started talking about a Christmas several years ago and did I remember when the mouse ran across the living room, right in front of where she was sitting, and about scared Mom half to death?  This she asked me while she starred up at the wall of a house that she had only started renting the previous summer.  Even more surprising, was I knew exactly what she was talking about and said yes, and added to it that Mom jumped from the couch and ran straight into the kitchen, almost tripping over the rug in the dining room in the process. There was no hesitation whatsoever with my answer.  Of course we weren’t there at Christmas and Mom wasn’t scared by a mouse because she wasn’t there either, the mouse, however, I’m not so sure about.  Rather, it was the feeling we had when we were there.  It was home….like we had been there forever and with flawless ease, we inserted ourselves right into the history of the little house in Keene Valley, NY,  because it felt like we owned a piece of it and its story,  even if only in our imagination.

The cottage in Keene Valley, NY where our memories started before we arrived…

That is my definition of emotional nesting and sometimes, I think I’m too good at it.  I’ve done this at my house in KS.  It’s a home that has logged over 80 years of life and love in its walls, where every room is no doubt steeped in decades of stories.  Although I didn’t lay eyes on the house until 5 years ago, I have no problem inserting myself right into the made up stories of its history.  Colorado will no doubt be next as I begin to envision my 2 year-old self myself playing in the mountain dirt in places that are a county away from where I actually lived.  Emotional nesting.  Connecting.  Finding my sense of ownership.

I attach deeply to the places where I perch and will send a tap root down to insure permanence before I’ve hung a picture or decided which cabinet the plates will go in if it feels right to me.   It doesn’t surprise me one bit when I wake up with confusion as to where I am.  This process for me has become a huge lesson in transition.   It’s the train that carries me towards the unknown and while I may not even know there’s a journey underway, one day I realize I’ve arrived, and I’m home and I feel safe and happy and like I belong.   I’ve also learned that the most important nest that I feather isn’t in KS or CO, but rather is wherever I am because it is what I carry with me inside that makes any place my home, whether it’s a house, or a tent or my seat on the bus.   I guess that makes me a turtle at heart.  I’ll take it.