Down There By the Train
The first time I saw the house we now call home, I thought I might kill my husband. We’d moved across country from San Francisco to Virginia in order to live a quieter life. A life our children could look back on as being filled with memories of small town wonder: playing in streams, catching crawdads, taking hayrides, huddling by a wood-burning stove after a snow storm. After years of hipster restaurants and glittering to-dos, we looked forward to doing the uncool things like Christmas caroling and knowing our neighbors well enough that we could drop by any old time just to say hello. Or ask to borrow a cup of good gin.
I’d had a baby only a couple of months prior to our move, so I hadn’t been part of the whole house hunting process. I’d left it solely in the hands of my husband, confident that he and I shared the same sensibility – a love of the very old or the ultra modern with little room for in between, an appreciation of nooks and crannies and imperfections. Or of vision. We longed for a home with story and a sense of style all its own. Or a place where we could invent the story ourselves. Such is the pathology of writers – at least these two writers. We’re people of romance, not utility. And we don’t like to keep up with the Joneses so much. To quote my husband, Jack. “I just can’t live in a place where I could see myself standing by a pool and giving a recent graduate advice to go into ‘plastics.'”
We’d always done well with our choices before – being exactly on the same page when we bought a loft condo converted from an old automotive factory, rented a shabby chic Victorian flat, and almost purchased a plot of land ready for a prefab house that would ultimately have been made of wood and concrete.
So, as we plotted our radical change of address from California to Virginia, Jack would send me pictures of this house he’d found, which I have to admit looked good. In his emails, he swore up and down how much I was going to love our new place, and I was so on board. The painted brick of our proposed home, the large, Shaker-inspired windows, all showed tremendous promise. I loved that the structure paid homage to its geography with four white columns and a big front porch begging for a couple of rockers, but upon closer look had the austerity of a post office.
The place screamed Southern Gothic.
“And it’s historic,” my husband said. Which is true. “It’ll accommodate us as our kids grow and we have more children.” Also true. “It’s got magic, sweetheart, trust me.” That was the part I had a hard time with a few weeks later as I stood staring at a gloomy and ancient brick house that looked more suitable for the Addams family. To add a sour cherry on top of this gloppy, half-melted sundae, our new house sat about a softball’s throw from an active (although not prolifically so) single railroad track. I can’t say that it looked nothing like it’s photographs, but it definitely had the quality of an aging actor seen up close. All of a sudden you’d pick up what the camera didn’t, what good lighting obscured. Like the hair dye, the pancake make-up, dentures, too many attempts at plastic surgery.
“I love it,” I said, swallowing hard. He was so excited and there was no way I was going to burst his bubble. Especially since we’d already secured financing. That night, the first time a train came by around midnight – and felt like it was thundering right through my forehead – I actually went into the bathroom and cried.
“We knew we’d like y’all,” our neighbors told us. “Only special people would buy your house.”
Hmm. Special. At least when I was growing up, special was a word used to describe kids who were different, but not in a good way. Kids who were weird were “special.” Kids who had disabilities were “special.” They rode on a separate bus and ate at a table off to the side during lunch.
And now we were special. We lived in a special house. One that, like the trains, was going to take some getting used to. The tall, tall ceilings and oddly shaped rooms – some oblong, others square and huge. Still others tiny, like prayer rooms. The heat would grind, the floors would creak for no good reason – even when no one was stepping on them. A family of snakes made their home in our basement.
We were told this was a good thing. Keeps the rodent population down.
But after about a week, the lone coal train that would come through in the middle of the night stopped waking me up. And lo and behold, rather than waking our kids up, that train actually put them to sleep. Whenever they started crying, the way children under two are apt to do, Jack and I would check the clock to see if the train was coming any time soon, and if it was – cha-ching! We knew that by the time its hard-stepping lullaby was finished, they would be fast asleep.
I figured this was a sign. A sign that I should maybe give our new house a chance before I began slowly planting the seeds that we ought to be looking for a different place. A converted barn, perhaps. We’d always wanted one of those.
So, about ten days into living in our new home, I picked up my camera and went from room to room taking photographs of each space and all of the details I liked – the antique tin ceilings, the original pine floors spotted with coal burns and oil drum rings, the handmade, flat-headed nails that held the place together, the way the light moved through the house as the day progressed.
I began to revel in the natural beauty that surrounds us. Long walks on a country railroad provide some of the most sublime back views in our county. At night, during the spring and summer, bats flutter around the moon like it’s a bug light, while local foxes scream blood-curdling mating calls.
The place did have potential. Even if I couldn’t wrap my head around when or how, with a bunch of little babies crawling around, we were ever going to fulfill that potential. It’s not like either of us had the time or skills to fix her up on our own.
It’s funny, though, about dreams. About taking on more than you think you can handle. It’s a tender process that you must surrender to bit by bit. You learn to fix the things that need fixing – or find someone who can do it for you. You learn to work with the place instead of fighting against it.
“Know what you do when you’ve got a problem in an old house?” Said our neighbor, whose home is even older than ours. “Ignore it. Usually goes away on its own.”
I started to imagine colors on the country trim that frame our doors and windows – moss greens, chocolates, rich creams, faded reds.
“If we knock that wall down, we’ll double the size of the living room.”
“Do you think we can make that chimney work?”
“How about if we blow out the ceiling in our bedroom to expose the original wooden beams?”
Just so, we began to execute to the structure’s potential, instead of complaining about its shortcomings. We started to celebrate the glorious layers of past, present and future that made up our home.
And in the process, our house became as much a part of our dreams as our work, our family, our love. We wanted to do right by her. Respect the relationship our house had and continues to have with the community at large. Seems everybody around here has a story about her. If not them, then their dad, or grandmother, or Uncle Louie.
We wanted our time here to leave behind a story or two as well. So, we did our part.
While we’ve never been much into Christmas bedazzling outside of putting up a Christmas tree, we made sure to screw green and red light bulbs into our porch lights outside. We’ve done this mostly for the train conductors who always blare their horns in salute as my kids jump and wave at them. When our son was really little, the conductors would even let him sit in the caboose when it was time for a shift change. In recent years, that same boy – not so little anymore – has mooned them at least a half dozen times. And they’ve been awfully good sports about that.
And as we’ve become the stewards of the long road of memories made here, we’ve come to understand how a place, too, can be a living thing. There is a magnetic quality to this house that not only lured us to it, but has kept us here. It is as tangible as the unmistakable something that draws us to a friend or a lover or a calling.
Sometimes we have cursed how this old broad seems to hold us captive. Other times we have thanked the powers that be for letting us stay. Mostly, it’s been the latter. But whatever the case, I’ve been forced to reconsider my initial reaction to this place, and embrace my husband’s instincts.
In that rare moment in a marriage, I’m compelled to say, “I was wrong. Yes, I was unequivocally wrong, and you were right, honey. This place does indeed have magic.”