Elizabeth and I are homebound. She, a writer of poetry and prose, is bound to Mersea, a 1904 white Victorian nestled in the historic district of a South Carolina shrimping village. I am bound to Maplehurst, a red-brick farmhouse built by Pennsylvania Quakers in 1880. We are both writers, wives, and mothers, but nearly twenty years and hundreds of miles lie between us. This season, as winter turns toward spring and Lent leans toward Easter, Elizabeth and I are writing letters, she beneath the pines and pecans, I beneath the hemlocks and maples. We will reflect together on our homebound journeys. We will explore the bonds of love and faithfulness that tie us, and not always easily, to these particular places and to the people sheltered within them. Please join us for an epistolary exploration of love, loss, and restoration.
Find Elizabeth’s first letter here. My response is below.
March 1, 2017
From the kitchen table at Maplehurst, where a peacock blue, block-printed tablecloth is scattered with the crumbs of last night’s pancake supper
As I write, Dr. B is smoothing down our old oak floors with an electric sander. It sounds as if an airplane has flown in through an open window by mistake, a mechanical bird looking for escape. Once the old finish is removed, he will soak the wood in a mixture of tung and orange oils. The dull, dry floorboards will absorb their own luster until they can absorb no more. Then the floors will shine for the first time in many decades, and my children will no longer gather splinters with their bare toes. He says the finish will take a month or so to cure. While we wait, the rugs will lie rolled up in the basement, and the house will smell like a grove of Florida citrus.
Dr. B is our doctor of old houses, and he does indeed have the healer’s gift. He came to us a year ago when Jonathan and I found that we had fallen into a silence more sinister than the usual quiet lull between house projects. This was the silence of rotted wood beyond our ability to repair and crumbling limestone mortar whose nineteenth-century recipe was a puzzle we could not hope to solve.
The first time I met him he showed me photographs of his intricate, swirling plaster work. I admired them like I admire sculpture in a museum. It did not matter that our plain, Quaker-built farmhouse has no decorative plasterwork. The second time I met him he told me he’d been praying for one more old house to restore. Maplehurst was the answer to his prayer, but he is the answer to ours.
Here in Pennsylvania, a mild winter appears to be coming to an early end. I have seen the very first of the bright yellow daffodils called “February Gold.” Despite their name, they have never bloomed for me in February, until this year.
Soon, then, he and I will turn our attention outdoors. He to the red bricks in need of fresh mortar on the west side of the house, and me to the garden. Before I plant out sweet peas and dig in bareroot roses, however, I need to finish wallpapering and painting “Julie’s room.” For two years, our friend Julie lived in this room, but last month she moved out to a place of her own. I have chosen a pale, not-too-pink shade of pink for the sloped attic ceiling and walls, and a bold pink-and-blue floral wallpaper for the window wall at the far end of the room. Quite likely, we will call this bedroom “Julie’s room” forever, but I intend it to be a bedroom my two nieces can call their own each time they visit.
Perhaps I plant baby trees so enthusiastically because I, like you, live in fear that one of our ancient pines will one day topple down, taking our front porch with it. Restoration that peels back the ravages of time like layers of old paint is such a hopeful thing. But the restoration required of us in the wake of disaster, even a disaster as small as a broken pane of glass or the deep scratch my boys left on the banister, is a more daunting cross to carry. In my weariness, I opt for bandages that hide but do not heal. Months ago, I taped a square of cardboard across the missing pane of glass in the door to my potting shed. Now I can see that cardboard flapping in the breeze.
Restoration is beautiful to contemplate, wonderful when finished, but often difficult to live. In this season at Maplehurst, restoration is the bone-rattling sound of renewed floors. It is the rosy-pink glow of a bedroom decorated for young girls. It is also the note on my calendar reminding me that my husband will soon travel to escort our nieces to their Daddy-Daughter Dance.
To commit oneself to restoration, we must be willing to draw near to brokenness. Broken floors. Broken hearts.
Today is Ash Wednesday. Tonight, I will make the drive to church with my children. I will allow four soft, small foreheads to be smudged with a mark of sin and death. We are turning toward spring, toward resurrection, yet I worry: is restoration second-best? Is it always not-quite-as-good-as new? When I study these many broken things, I know I want better-than-new.
The broken walls, of which Scripture speaks so often, are only partially rebuilt. The ruins have only begun to be repaired.
But the work has begun, and this gives me hope.
With gratitude for your listening ear,