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To Build a Nest
By Christine Stoddard
Old World glamour and history have held a spell over me for as long as I can remember. As a little girl, I read—or at least flipped through—scores of European books and magazines. Thanks to additional exposure to foreign films and cartoons, my wee self had constructed fantasy after fantasy of my young adult self inhabiting the sorts of places my favorite heroines did. Maybe I would wake up and roll out of bed and into the life of Sara Crewe’s English attic. Maybe I would find myself in the cramped apartment of Une femme est une Femme. Even Madeline’s French orphanage held a certain charm. I never imagined myself living in a sleek, modern condominium.
If a house or apartment has anything to do with the future, I want nothing to do with it. I don’t care about the newest of the new. Only places that sag a little and whisper of hidden histories have any appeal. I want to step into a building and wonder about the people who came before me. Ideally, I’d live in a Spanish castle overlooking a river.
Now I find myself in a house that dates back to the late 1930s. It is a pretty standard Mid-Atlantic Colonial structure with solid, unpainted brick and pale green-gray shutters. Every room boasts hardwood floors and the windows are relatively big, allowing for plenty of natural light. Inside, some of the paint is a little faded, even chipped, but I like it that way.
The neighborhood is filled with distinctive bungalows, Tudors, and other Colonials. No two are alike and most were built at least a decade before WWII. In other words, they were built when my grandmother was just a tyke, even less sure of the world than I am now. Sometimes I play this scene in my head where my grandmother walks around my neighborhood, all of age six or seven, marveling at all of the construction. Her rosebud mouth hangs open and her big blue eyes grow even bigger.
I am young enough that I can bounce at any time—just grab a suitcase, frantically stuff it with any necessities, hop into a car or on a train or on a plane, and sign a lease wherever I want. I do not have to worry about a spouse’s job or the best school districts for my child. Perhaps that is why, as of late, I have been researching real estate. I have been dreaming of snatching up a dilapidated house and turning it around while still preserving its old magic. I think of finding a steal in a post-industrial city (maybe my current one, maybe another) and renovating a house that once belonged to a mill worker or a coal miner. I think of the days spent sawing and chipping and sweeping. Somehow, this is a comforting dream, knowing that I might one day pay homage to something that was once beautiful by making it beautiful again.
Until that day comes, I will continue scouring Zillow.com and reading “I Bought a Total Dungheap of House” on XOJane.com. My childhood heroines not only lived in old houses; they famously kept on dreaming.