This Old House by
50
(76 Stories)

Prompted By Home Repair

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Out in Western Massachusetts, just short of Cummington, is the tiny hamlet of Swift River.  If you turn off right past the bridge and wind down a tree-lined lane far enough to lose sight of the paved road, you might find an old white clapboard farmhouse and a barn by a meadow.  It belonged to someone in Jon’s family, and he had spent summers there; by 1973 the relatives had passed on, and he was charged with repairing the premises—I think under his father’s general aegis.

The house was a study in deferred maintenance.  Charming, with furniture, bedding, kitchen ware, and barn implements still in place, but old. He was a budding architect.  I was a friend of a friend with no repair skills to speak of, but had youthful enthusiasm, and came cheap.

The house was a study in deferred maintenance.  Charming, with furniture, bedding, kitchen ware, and barn implements still in place, but old. He was a budding architect.  I was a friend of a friend with no repair skills to speak of, but had youthful enthusiasm, and came cheap.

Behind me: two years of pre-med, political disagreements with the university administration, and college graduation.  Ahead: medical school on the West Coast, and a complicated plan on how to get across the continent.  The summer was a present of time without demands other than needing a place to stay and some pocket money.

The punch list of house repairs was long.  The multi-paned windows needed re-glazing, and the grout had to be prepared and drawn just so.  All the rooms, some with lots of built-in woodwork, needed paint, and I learned how much of painting is preparation–getting a bead going to make a good line and avoiding drips was the easy part. Everything needed to be cleaned and tidied and sorted, and the yard and garden needed weeding and mowing.  Laundry was done with the old wringer washing machine, and clothes hung to dry on the line. The old barn still had hay in it, as well as tangled piles of rusted nails, screws, nuts, bolts, and odd bits of hardware, all of which ended up in respective jars.  I assisted a lot on jobs that required more skill or brawn than I had, passing tools or holding a ladder.

We worked five days a week, enough to make progress.  It was an honor system; no one else was there to oversee the hours or the work and we had the house to ourselves.  On a hot afternoon, Jon would lead us down a tangled path on the other side of the road, where the river formed a swimming hole full of welcome cold water .  When Cummington had a fair or market day, we might check that out.  To catch cool night breezes, we set up on the screened-in sleeping porch on the second floor, hoping the no-see-ums wouldn’t get through the mesh.  I remember the green leaves, the sun on the meadow, the sense of suspended time, the physical work, the living history of the old place and small town.

On weekends, I might go back to Cambridge, where I was crashing with my city boyfriend of the time, and sometimes he would visit the greenery of Swift River.  No one had a car, but we had time and stamina, which came in handy hitchhiking back and forth on routes 2 and 9.

By the end of the summer, the house was looking a bit better.  Not redone, just more solid and a bit fixed up.  I now realize that I also became stronger by the time I left Massachusetts for the long trek west–the house wasn’t they only one to have benefitted from a bit of repair.

Profile photo of Khati Hendry Khati Hendry


Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Marian says:

    Love the way the sweat equity you describe became something a lot more, Khati. Restoration strengthened your body and restored your spirit, in a way. I’m glad you had that summer and that the old house “spoke” to you.

  2. Wonderful Khati, a good story is always much more than the physical details of the plot!

  3. John Shutkin says:

    Terrific story — and life lesson — Khati. And just when I think I really know Western MA (we were there for a wedding in the Berkshires last weekend), I come across yet another town I’ve never heard of before.

    And I do know a bit about restoring old houses too. They are truly labors of love, with the emphasis on the word “labor.” Even beyond this, your description of your time at the house and your memories of it are truly magical.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      I don’t see Swift River on a map either–it was more a notion than a true, thriving town, and may have faded into history. But the place exists like a Shangri-la in the mists of time that I truly visited once. It was fun to have the opportunity to remember and appreciate better that little segment of life.

  4. Jeff Gerken says:

    I really loved your writing on this story, it was almost like the intro to a novel.

  5. Suzy says:

    This was a lovely story, very well written. I agree with Jeff, it could be the beginning of a novel. Or a memoir. Swift River might be a Shangri-La that no longer exists, but even Cummington only had a population of 872 people in the 2010 census; in 1970 it was 562. And Swift River was even smaller.

    Were you and Jon the only people working on the restoration that summer, or were there others helping? When you said “Jon would lead us down a tangled path,” it sounded like there might be more than the two of you.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      I’m impressed that you looked up the census data! Yes, a tiny wee dot of a place. Jon and I were the only two working on the house–the “us” was just him and me, or maybe one other person visiting. Sometimes the swimming hole would have others there, but that was rare. I remember we also visited some lively and elderly neighbors, who regaled me with stories of the miracle in food preservation they had experienced, which turned out to be frozen vegetables and fruit–which I had always taken for granted.

  6. Betsy Pfau says:

    Wonderful details as you weave your narrative of restoration of old house and your own body and soul. Time has given you enough perspective to learn that becoming stronger for what lay ahead was the point. You learned much that summer and you’ve shared it with us in a dream-like vision. Thank you, Khati. I could just imagine you with your thumb out on Rt 2 and 9.

  7. Laurie Levy says:

    I love the way you described restoring that old house. I had forgotten about punch lists and the volunteer labor that went into renovating the building that became our preschool. Your tale inspired me to write a second story about that if this week is kind to me.

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