Six months after my family moved into the first brand-new house my parents ever bought, Mom started directing my father to remove or move walls and change various other things. This was a perfectly ordinary three-bedroom tract house in a blue-collar neighborhood. It was laid out in a fairly obvious way. There was not much you could do with it. But for the next 20 years my mother conducted a ceaseless rebuilding campaign.
She joked that she was born with the Mrs. Winchester gene. I believed it. And early on it was clear I’d inherited it.
Other women move furniture, forever seeking a cozier nest. I’m perfectly content for my furniture to stay put. I want to move the walls and ceilings around it.
For most of my life circumstances have kept me from fully exercising my Mrs. Winchester nature. But my last three houses (one a cabin shell I had to finish, two old beaters in need of help) have kept me almost constantly in a state of construction. And the present place … well, old-lady Sara would feel right at home.
My $10,000 (and counting) house — aka Ye Olde Wreck, aka Dripping Cedars, eventually tbka Mo Saoirse (My Freedom) — is either allowing me to fulfill my Winchester destiny or providing curative gene therapy. I’m not sure. All I know is that when I’m done with this house, I’m done. I ain’t doin’ this again, never nohow. I am staying put here until they haul me out feet first. I am never moving on to another “just needs a little something” abode. I am never ripping down another rotted addition. I am never dragging another slab of drywall into place. I am never sweeping up the grainy, grimy leftovers of a plumbing or electrical job. I am never looking around and thinking, “You know, it could be really cool if that wall over there had a 30-degree angle on it” or “Hey, wouldn’t a skylight be just the thing for that room?”
Oh, I’ll think it. But do it??? Never, no way, nohow.
Of course when you buy a foreclosed, leaking, abandoned olde wreck you expect fixing. From foundation to roof, there’s inevitably a lot that must be done and that’s that, Winchester gene aside. The fact that this house was also all kinds of ridiculous (e.g. some former owner having abandoned the bathroom to mice and spiders, then cutting into a bedroom to build a second bath, then extending that bedroom via a shoddily built lump of an addition) made for that much more work. And rot. Never forget all the rot repair (now blessedly DONE after four years).
But as with Sarah’s Mystery House, Ye Olde Wreck has also been in a state of constant improvisation. Ceiling collapses? Oopsie. But opportunity! Change it from a flat ceiling to slightly vaulted. Back end of the house turns out too rotted to jack up? Arrgh. But opportunity! Rip five feet off the bedroom and turn the space into a screen porch. End up with an odd bit of space because some original plan for it didn’t work out? Improvise! Be creative! Think of something!
This weekend as I insulate a couple of naked walls, move an electrical outlet, shim a floor, and tear down the last remaining (and so hated) fiberboard ceiling tiles in preparation for The Return of the Wandering Monk, I’m really, really beginning to identify with old Sarah, who built her mansion without plan or any great amount of common sense. The final — really final — structural/design decisions are here. They simply involve closets. Closets. Those are easy, aren’t they? And these aren’t even big closets. But because the future closets exist in space left over from and affected by other improvisational decisions, they now present both opportunity! and mental convolutions that feel as deranged as poor Sarah trying to appease the spirits that haunted her.
I know I can make everything work. I’ll end up with a nice little house. Even if it has its oddities, they’ll be charming, creative oddities, not Sarah Winchester oddities.
But oy. Never, ever again. No way. Should you suspect I’m even tempted to do this one more time, call the nice men in the white coats. You’ll be doing me a big favor.