Buying a house runs almost parallel to an online or blind date. At face value, from the carefully selected MLS listing pictures or deceiving match.com profiles, a potential house and date present the same. As the relationship evolves, the secrets are revealed. The skeletons in the closet get dragged out into broad daylight. Physical remnants of previous relationships are etched deep into the mortar and veins—sometimes we hear the story at full-length. Often we’re left to guess.
This particular old house stands like a nomadic camel on a never-ending caravan. Loved and mistreated in equal parts by different owners over the century and a half, each floor joist, pine shake shingle, chunk of limestone and black walnut tree represents a historical milestone in the genesis of William Webster’s homestead, the stone mason who probably broke his back making this unruly riverfront plot a home.
It reminds me of Elspeth Huxley’s memoir, The Flame Trees of Thika. Readers are introduced to a bustling colonial Kenya, rich with promise built on a foundation of hope. The book opens with Huxley’s father’s desire to create a successful coffee plantation on a plot of land he bought “in the bar of the Norfolk Hotel from a man wearing an Old Etonian tie.
“Thika in those days—the year was 1913—was a favourite camp for big-game hunters and beyond it there was only bush and plain. If you went on long enough you would come to mountains and forests no one had mapped and tribes whose languages no one could understand.”
Huxley’s family didn’t traverse that far, though, they were two days’ journey in an ox-cart.
Those were the days of gumption! Imagine buying a parcel of land, sight unseen (no realtor.ca! No real estate agent to point out the waving red flags), all with the hopes that a river runs through it and that your steed and family can survive not only the elements, but, your vision of a dream. All with pennies in pockets. And, sometimes, a piano and Pekinese dogs to bring some semblance of home to a savannah laced with coiling pythons and hungry hidden leopards and lions.
I feel a little bit Huxley in our move to Galt. Our steed was a Saab and surely, the 100km journey from Toronto is the 2013 equivalent of a two day ox-cart ride. Instead of a coffee plantation, I was content with finding a cozy coffee shop with Frisbee-sized ginger cookies and sunny tables for spreading out newspapers. And, I did find one—a three minute ox-cart (or donkey, our preferred mode in Egypt) ride away. The Grand Cafe.
Though we visited the house twice before we had possession (see, buying a house is really like dating! Especially if you’re talking about lesbians—you definitely have possession after two visits! And then, of course, you move in on the third).
We had drive-by’s (similar to online cruising of profile pics). We snooped via our agent for more dirt on the history and reassurance, just like serial daters. We Googled our stone mason and Galt and surmised that whatever magnetic pull Webster had in 1867 to this area, the attraction was identical to ours.
It’s a gentle conquering, to have an empire of dirt in Kenya or Galt. Despite the lack of a coffee plantation and pecking hens and Masai warrior ready with spear in hand. (or, cell phone in this case).
There’s undeniable responsibility here, to sustain a 150-year-old home that has weathered more than just the angry floodwaters of the turbulent Grand river. To plant a tree deep in the soil here, we are contributing to the time capsule, a property that remembers each of its tenants—via crocus blooms, cobbled walkways and Japanese blood grasses and butterfly bushes.
A new massage client recently asked what prompted our radical move from Toronto. I explained our love-at-first-sight encounter with the stone cottage. I also said that a neat event had occurred with the purchase–because it was a heritage home, that we had also become caretakers of history.
“Oh, so you have a home cleaning business too?”
I laughed, but then realized, as caretakers, yes, we sort of adopted that part-time job too.
The black walnut trees, which I like to think William Webster planted, are the favoured hangout of Downy woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches and roosting grackles. The squirrels stake claim over the chipmunk, but in the end, it is a time share, with each bird and mammal taking turn amongst the branches throughout the day.
Like us. It’s our turn in the branches. I imagine grand garden parties, theirs and ours. With soft fairy lights, and socialites tipsy on juleps or gimlets, a la Gatsby. I picture hot orange campfires licking at the night sky, pheasants golden on the grill, long-winded toasts and promises to do it all over again, sooner than later. Then and now.
We are learning a lot in this new relationship with our home. The now-predictable post-midnight clangs and pings of the old rads no longer give us a synchronized stroke. The lay of the bedrock in the basement is becoming familiar—I have all the potholes mapped out. (But, there will always be a token whack of the head every other time I go down into the far recesses of the basement—a reminder that I’m not 5’5).
I love that we’ve become part of such a story. That we’re sharing turf with a stone mason and his steeds. We’re becoming quite intimate with our blind date of a house. It only took us one visit to want to make the commitment.
And, now we commit to the storied past and a remarkable future in tandem.