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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Old Houses

Highland PostOld Houses

It is a humid Tuesday in July, and I am standing on the shoulder of a dirt road in Northeast Wisconsin. I stepped out of my truck to take a photograph of a farmhouse I noticed rotting away next to land that has not seen a crop in years. It is a quiet afternoon, one that reminds me of summers when there was nowhere I had to be and no way to get there except by bicycle. Today, all that can be heard is the gravel beneath my feet as I work my way down a potholed driveway. I stop under a tree that spans two floors. In a place the world has forgotten, where cars speed by on a freeway on the horizon less than a mile away, this abandoned property is more like art. The last time I saw such a well-crafted home, it was for sale in bits and pieces at an architectural antique store in Michigan. I snap a few more pictures, knowing I can never capture how this place makes me feel.

Even with its bubbled paint and sagging foundation, this old giant is more statuesque than the modern homes I have seen crammed too close together in the city suburbs. I have spotted many houses just like this one while driving America’s interstates and back roads. Some had boards on the windows, others were overtaken by ivy with sunken roofs and half-hinged doors. Even as they decomposed, the porches still welcomed a weary traveler, and the gardens were still spurting up wildflowers between the weeds.

There’s something about an old house that makes me feel safe. Maybe it is because it has withstood so many storms – stormy weather and the storms of life. A friend told me she once bought an old house after her divorce because she wanted to surround herself with things that had been loved before and not discarded for their age. To her, the creaky old floors and pipes gave her more comfort than a new home with all of its modern features. An old house will hug you, she told me. And she liked to fall asleep feeling embraced.

I cannot help but think this house was someone’s beginning. This was someone’s marvellous story. I notice a rusted weathervane slowing spinning in a light breeze, and the remains of a dried-up well that speaks of chapters gone by. I lean back on a wobbly railing, and I wonder, what happened in this house? Was there love here, and were they happy? Did someone sit on this porch on a warm Wisconsin night and wish on a falling star? What did they wish for? Did they get it?

I imagine pumpkins sitting on the wide ledge of the porch, and fall leaves piling up around the bottom stairs. We do not build houses like this anymore. This spot seems like the perfect place for a first kiss. If I stood here 50 years ago, what would I hear and see? Would the smell of baked peach pies drift through an open kitchen window? Would I hear the laughter of family and friends celebrating a college scholarship or the birth of a child? Have these doors been slammed in a fit of teenage defiance? Did the cellar shelter a farmer’s family while a tornado ripped through his fields?

Sometimes I need to take a closer look at things from the past to get a better vision of my future. If a home like this can end up abandoned just moments outside of a bustling city, it makes me face the reality that there is an end to every story. Old houses surrender to nature with such grace. We can learn something from it. There is beauty in the way grand things bend back into the cycle of life. Genuine beauty is always visible, it only becomes a different kind of beauty. Even in its final stages, this house remains the epitome of a traditional American home.

Looking in my rear-view mirror, I see the first shadows of dusk have fallen over the property. Although good beginnings are beautiful to have, maybe it is even more essential to find a good place to end. Maybe if I were to make a wish on a falling star tonight, my wish would be this; that we all find a good place to end. I would wish for a porch like this and a house like this on the outskirts of a busy world. It would be the perfect place for one last kiss.