• This Old House

    Our house in Vermont was built in 1827. It’s still upstanding with four-pane vertical windows, white clapboards, a steep roof, marble mounting blocks in front for horses, and a narrow porch around three sides. It has a large mudroom, claw-footed bathtubs instead of showers, and a small railroad kitchen. The attic contains a brick cistern, originally fed by gutters, with the water drawn down to the rest of the house by gravity.

    It sits next to Sherman’s Country Store, a local institution stocked with Labatts and Papps, cold cuts, and a wheel of Vermont cheddar (the cat sleeps on the scale). A coffee booth sits next to the front window and there are stuffed animals, including woodchuck, wild boar, and a jackalope for the tourists.

    Our house has one other feature. It’s haunted.

    Mysterious lights appear in top-floor windows. Visitors who are sensitive to otherworldly vibrations have refused to venture to the third floor. The basement is a classic of the genre with a dirt-floor root cellar reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project. And, more practically speaking, there is the usual collection of errant mice and the occasional bat that has to be shooed out the front door with a fishing net.

    Ten years ago, a neighbor was downstairs cleaning and heard someone walking around upstairs. She didn’t think much of it until heavy, deliberate footfalls started down the main staircase. She paused in her work, looked up, and saw an old-fashioned preacher without a face.

    Besides offering a spiritual home to prior residents, our house has two distinctly different sides. The half with the kitchen and dining room is three stories, with two square bedrooms on the second floor and two smaller rooms on the third, separated by a stepped brick chimney. The staircase’s treads are cherry, as is the foyer; the windows almost reach almost to the floor; and there is a faux marble fireplace in the dining room. The other side has a rough-built staircase with narrow painted treads, plain moldings, and a small hobbit-size door connecting the two sides on the second floor. One side is rather grand, and the other looks like it was built for farmhands.

    Stories about the provenance of the house include its use as a girls’ school and how one owner sold homemade candy out of the basement (there is a small take-out window built into one of the basement partitions), but nobody remembers why it is two houses joined together. Even the original stone foundation tells no tales—the house was clearly built at one time; nothing has been added on.

    It’s also a bit of a hodgepodge. An outside porch door once led only into a bathroom. Seven doors lead off the dining room. Old plumbing gives one a clue that the kitchen was once in the mudroom. Each side of the house had only one bathroom.

    I recently went to see a chiropractor trained in kinesiology. One extends an arm, and the practitioner measures your resistance to a substance (a mineral, for example) by lightly pushing down on that arm. Don’t ask me how or if this works. Although I was told that my energy field was lacking (that’s a new-age putdown if I have ever heard one), I left the office skeptical but intrigued, willing to give the unseen a chance.

    I claim no special knowledge of or belief in spirits, hauntings, vibrations, planetary forces, or chakras—all the things that may in fact control the universe or just go bump in the night. I do know that I live in a house that is alive. How many times have family and friends sat in close quarters after dinner, in a room full of radiators and pipes, doorways and windows, and felt shrouded in happiness, floating on a buoyant sea of ancient evenings? Our house is always good company.

    These days, I observe the reflections in the faces around the table and see the expected—a common cause, shared passions, and hard times as well as years transformed into history much like this house; old doorways blocked, intentions obscured. Yet there is new life, a bright coat of paint and a renovated kitchen, renewed inspiration and a fresh start. The past is the foundation for the future.

    It’s late and I’m finishing up the dishes. I hear a creak on the stairs and a dull clang from the basement. It could be a ghost or just the house trying to speak up, to say that it’s happy that both new life and old walk across its well-worn floorboards. It’s a reminder that old houses have lives of their own. They live and breathe, inviting us in from the storm when we most need shelter.

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