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Restoring A Memory

My mother-in-law may be gone, but her spirit lives on in her renovated Indiana farmhouse.

I first saw my wife’s childhood home 29 years ago when I rode my bicycle from Plainfield to Paoli to stop an encounter I believed harmful to my best interests—the introduction of her boyfriend to her mother. It turns out that if a man rides 95 miles in July heat to court a woman, it tends to impress her. The next week my future wife, Joan, bid her boyfriend goodbye and began dating me.

The house was outside Paoli on land that had been in my wife’s family since 1843. I have no proof of that, except that Ruby Apple, my mother-in-law, used to tell me the first thing the Apples did when they landed in Orange County was build a church, Apple’s Chapel, in 1843.

Ruby had lived in her farmhouse since 1940, when she and her husband, Howard, hauled a 1913 corn crib (built by my wife’s grandfather) a half-mile down the valley from his parents’ house, added a few rooms, and set up housekeeping.

They raised five children in that small house and sent them off to college on a farmer’s pay. The first three, all boys, were ushered into the world by a helpful aunt skilled in such matters. The doctor arrived after the work had already been done by the women. My wife and her sister, numbers four and five, first saw the light of day in the new hospital in town. The doctor didn’t make it for their births, either.

When I first visited the house, it was pretty much as it had been since 1945, with the exception of electricity, indoor plumbing, and aluminum siding. Because Ruby was not inclined to replace things that worked perfectly fine, little about the house had changed. By then my father-in-law had died, and there was no money to change anything had she wanted to. So the house remained the same all the years of our association.

On the first day of 2008, after 68 years in the same farmhouse, Ruby moved to Danville, to live near us. She passed away the next June, her family gathered around her. My wife and I would occasionally visit the farmhouse, sweep up the dead bugs, and lament the wallpaper letting loose from its moorings. The autumn after Ruby’s death, the family assembled to clean out the house, divide some belongings, donate others, throw away the rest, and discuss what would become of the house and farm.

These conversations occur in every corner of the world, among children left to figure out how best to honor those who’ve gone before. Some elect to let the house remain a museum, believing as long as the house lives, so shall its former occupants. Others decide to sell and move on. Then there are people like my wife and me, who cannot bear to see a place that has been the repository of so much joy sit empty and eventually collapse. After a family meeting, we agreed to buy the farmhouse and the land around it, refurbish the house, and continue to enjoy it, as we had when Ruby was living.

Having never restored a home, I sought the counsel of a friend, Charlie Fish. Charlie is a cement man by trade, but like anyone in the construction business, he has a directory in his mind of capable workers in other trades. “I’d hire Ross Hutcheson if it was my house,” he said.

I phoned Ross, who stopped by our house the next evening after work to meet my wife and me. I know little about construction, except that it’s expensive, so I gave Ross general parameters. We wanted the house to retain its original footprint and charm and still remind us of the home it had been, minus the defects and deficiencies.

Ross nodded and said, “Cool.”

In the three months Ross worked at the farmhouse, he said “cool” to every suggestion I made, except when I suggested adding a shed roof on the south side of the second story to give us more floor space and light.

“You’ll like a dormer better,” he said.

“Okay,” I said, nodding thoughtfully, as if I actually knew the difference between a dormer and a shed roof.

“Cool,” he said.

There were no plans drawn, no contracts signed. Ross told me what it would cost, shook my hand, and the deal was sealed. The next week, Ross and his helpers, Trent and Ezra, began their work.

I drove down once a week while they labored, studying the structure, working in a question now and then to make them think I was a seasoned hand when it came to construction. I do know enough about building to tell good work from poor, and I’ve been pleased with Ross’s crew. The cuts are clean and fit well, no shoving in a shim to correct haphazard joinery. Once Ross was finished, a stream of workers came through—Shannon roofing, Joe wiring, Tim plumbing, Charlie pouring new steps and sidewalks. After construction, the second-worst thing I do is painting, so I’m going to see if I can talk my wife into doing that.

Not long ago I heard an elderly man bemoan the work ethic of the younger generation. He was in his 80s, so I think he was taking a swipe at my peers and me. This is a common human trait, to infer from a single encounter a broad assumption about an entire group. I’m trying hard not to imply that yesterday’s generation thinks it worked harder than today’s. Still, if that elderly man spent even an hour with those Orange County artisans, he’d think differently.

We’re not yet sure of our plans, other than to spend as much time at the farmhouse as our lives and jobs permit. Summer is pleasant there—the crickets in the pasture, the countless stars, the evenings on the screened-in porches. Winter, too, has its charms—the ice fringing the pond, the quilts three-deep on the beds, the occasional heavy snow that closes off the road to town and leaves us to our own devices until the county plow comes past on the third day.

The surveyor took me for a walk to show me the boundary stones set in 1890. “These are all your trees,” he said, sweeping his hand across the landscape.

How does one own a living, breathing tree? It felt wrong, as if he had pointed to a field of workers and declared them mine. It is a place of strict equality, the trees and the rocks and grasses as free and vital as those of us who rest upon them. Sometimes, I feel as if Ruby is still there, a benevolent spirit, resting with us, watching and smiling, pleased with the new life in the old house.