I started in my son’s room.
I started in my son’s room because I didn’t want to start in the master bedroom: Thin floral paper at least fifty years old grips the walls there. The crack above the whistling radiator runs parallel for the length of my arm before jogging northeast, like a hand curved upward.
I started in my son’s room because his room has always been the room of hand-me-downs: dresser and bed and a nightstand painted blue.
I started in my son’s room because his sisters have begun that slow and steady departure, charting out lives of their own. Already at college, they’re making plans for summer internships to get away from this beautiful little village that I already love, the village that insists upon squaring up its shoulders and calling itself a city.
I started in my son’s room because the alternative was to start in the kitchen, a project that will require an investment so outrageous and grand, I find it’s best not to think about it. So I fold up that project, tuck it away into a place in my mind labeled after college.
I started in my son’s room.
It was a mistake.
Starting at all was a mistake, I believe, because I started without knowing.
I started without learning the history of this place, this hundred-year-old house we now call home.
When was this door moved and why?
Where did that back staircase go?
Who put up this wall to create a fourth bedroom?
And the more practical questions:
What wood lies beneath those layers of paint painstakingly applied to the six-inch baseboards?
Should I strip the stain from the doors?
Before I proceed, I ask as many people as I can, seeking advice and opinions until it’s all a blur in my mind and I realize that I’m choosing not to choose because I’m afraid to make a mistake: What I decide about this room will set the tone for the rest of the house.
I wish someone had left me a map with detailed notes about the house’s changes and additions. I wish I could know who lived here before me and a little about their lives.
But there is no map and it’s too late anyway: The lights have been delivered and the electrician is at the front door. Perhaps starting without knowing is the only way to begin.
I roll up my sleeves, learning as I go, banking each mistake as currency against future projects I will undertake.
Mornings, I strip paint.
Afternoons, I settle in with coffee and my laptop to read up on the history of the people who once lived here:
A woman who shares exactly my mother’s European name boarded here in 1922. One quarter Chickasaw, she came from Oklahoma in 1890 to study at the college, where she would have been forbidden from smoking, drinking and visiting boys in their dorms. For the price of half a can of Coke, she would have had use of the school gym for an entire semester. Her tuition, room, and board cost her eight-thousandths of what my husband and I pay for one daughter’s tuition today.
I picture this woman, coming through the same front door, walking up these old oak stairs, going into the room where she boarded, perhaps the room of my son. Why had she come back after all these years?
It was not a mistake to start in my son’s room.
It was not a mistake to start at all, without the knowing.
But it was a mistake to say there is no map. Because it’s there. Torn in pieces, certainly, and scattered wide, but if I hadn’t started, I never would have learned what I know now: The map exists.
It’s up to me to find the scraps, to gather them into one place, to tape them back into some sensible whole and to add my own notations as I go along, jotting down changes and documenting what I find about the people whose history is a part of the history of this house.
I shall leave a map.
A north star, of sorts, for future owners a hundred years hence.