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Heart & Home

Sharing a common bond over the love of a home, two men forge a friendship that spans thirty years and many miles

It was one of those oversized advertising cards that come in the mail, glossy and colorful. For an “affordable” sum, it proposed to tear my house down in two days or less, clean up the property, haul away the debris and leave me with a fine new half-acre, ready to build upon again.

“Don’t let an old, obsolete house hijack your real estate wealth,” the bold type commanded. “Call today and be land-rich tomorrow!” A photo of a black and yellow dinosaur machine eating an old, shingled house completed the message. The operator was waving at me.

Offers like this come as no shock if you’ve lived long around here. Houses are demolished all over town—seven thousand in our state in one year, one or two right on my street. People knowledgeable about real estate have no hesitation about identifying tear-down candidates—including my 1860s farmhouse. “No offense, Mr. B,” they say with faint smiles, “but with your location on the Mianus Pond, plus that wonderful view, there’s just no hope for saving the house. It’s not even a fixer-upper. You really should take advantage of what you’ve got. Don’t be sentimental about it. Old houses are just maintenance waiting to be done.”

I usually nod then and make some polite acknowledgement of this wisdom. But I know that what is being proposed is no-way possible. No-way because the house wreckers would have to seduce not only me, but the previous owner—Wally—as well.

I remember the day we met in 1972. A broker was showing me this near-empty house by the pond. Most of the furnishings had been moved out, but one couch remained in the living room, and there, alone, sat Wally, in a business suit and tie, shoes shined and wearing a fedora. We were not introduced and did not begin any conversation at first because Joe Bailey, the broker, was doing all the talking. But I felt a pang. Poor old guy, I thought, all dressed up to sell his home.

So much for first impressions. After I bought the house, I would soon know that Wally was anything but a poor old guy. Rather, he was a soft-talking Alabamian who loved to fish the Mianus in all seasons, a graduate engineer, an inventor of sorts, a gentleman who had a civic spirit and a literate mind. Most of all, he always had something useful or interesting to tell me about this house of mine that had been his for decades.

I had no idea that Wally would come with the property.

I was traveling frequently that first year, but I had many new-owner questions about the house: wiring, plumbing, septic tank, roof leaks, appliance connections and how to orient the TV antenna. Wally’s help was welcome and freely given—even on such obscure questions as “What is that strange little room that’s partitioned off in the attic? Did a crazy aunt live up there?”

When Wally and his wife Virginia moved to Florida for that first winter, they just missed a spectacular Connecticut ice storm. I thought they would like to see some photographs of all the crystalline beauty. This was the beginning of communications that would thrive and be the basis for friendship.

When spring arrived, a question came from Florida: “Mr. B, we wonder if you’ve seen any crocuses coming up in the front lawn? We planted them years ago. We’d like to hear about them.” The answer was yes, the crocuses were there, both purple and yellow. For summers to come, I would avoid mowing over “Wally’s flowers.”

Every week there was some puzzle: Why doesn’t the refrigerator make ice cubes, Wally? (“Because a water line was never connected.”). What is that deep concrete box that’s under the grape arbor? (“That was the foundation for an outhouse that you don’t need anymore, Charles.”) How can I keep the raccoons from eating the grapes? (“I never figured that out myself.”) Who is that lady next door with all that junk furniture piled on her back porch? (“She does chair caning for extra income. Pay no attention—she’s old.”)

So it began and so it continued for thirty years, and not always through the mail. About every year on May 1, Wally was back from Florida. A phone call would come. “Would you like go to fishing with me on our pond some evening?” he would ask. My ten-year-old son Patrick was invariably included in Wally’s plans, too. “I always like a good fisherman to come along,” Wally would say.

The canoe was mine, but the Mianus was ours and the house was ours. “I should show you where the I-beams are,” Wally said one day when he stopped by for a visit. (I-beams in a century-old house? I wondered.) “Yes, steel beams because the house was way off plumb when I bought it in the forties. We lifted it a gentle half-inch a day with big wooden screw jacks until everything was level and no plaster had cracked and then we slid the beams in for support. You can’t see ’em, but they’re there. Your house will never sag an inch!” (A true engineer’s pride.)

When we remodeled and the front door was moved to a new position, we sent a photo of the new layout to Florida. “Why didn’t we think of that?” was Wally’s approving reply.

By Labor Day each year, I could usually report enough Concord grapes to make many jars of jelly. (“You must know how to prune the vines.”) Patrick became as interested in the history and mythology of our new home as I. “Where did Wally say the ice fisherman’s car sank through the ice?” he asked. (“It was just in front of the house when the pond used to be twenty feet deep.”)

What are those birds that build nests in the garage? (“Some years, if the foliage on the Boston ivy is late, the purple finches get in and nest in the rafters. You better look out for that, they soil the cars.”)

As the years passed, the property acquired personality, and we gave names to various legends and locations, such as the area that would one day become a rock garden. “I buried a spare house key there once,” Wally remembered, “in a small glass jar. But I could never find it.” This became “Lost Key Ledge.”

There was also Willow Point, Green Room and The Lagoon. And, in the basement the “Wine Cellar”—a cool, dimly lighted space where the stone ledge on which the house was anchored loomed like the side of a mountain. What profanities would hell-bent house wreckers utter if their machine were to hit this surprise barrier.

Wally seemed amused by all of this make-believe. Every so often he would make use of one of my names as a point of reference: “Over there, near the Izzy Memorial,” he might say. Izzy was one of several cats who had owned and patrolled our territory. His “memorial” was cut from steel, the silhouette of a black cat with yellow eyes and whiskers, facing the pond.

We never paid much attention to clock or calendar here. The rhythms of the seasons were our “time,” and the years rolled around. Planet Earth was just counted on to tilt and turn when and as it should. That’s the way life went.

The last time Wally called, I thought he probably had in mind making a fishing date. He didn’t like to take the canoe out alone anymore, too tippy he said.

“How’s Pat? Does he help you take care of things?”
“Oh, he’s fine …
“Doing well up in Storrs?
“Yes, Pat’s OK. How are you, Wally?
“I wanted to tell you a couple of things before I forget.”
“You bet, Wally, any day.”
“No, I mean now, if you have time.”
Of course, I did. This was Wally calling.

“That electric panel at the foot of the cellar stairs, it’s one of the best. Don’t let anyone tell you it should be replaced, it’ll last for years.

“And, remember, too, there’s three flues in the chimney. Sometimes the sweeps miss one.” (A pause here … to catch his breath?)
“I heard the sump pump making a funny noise, you should take a look.”
(Another pause.)

“You asked once about that guest room up in the attic. I didn’t forget, but I don’t know much about that. It was probably from when the place was a boarding house, back before my time.”

We chatted like that for a while, remembering things: how the fish hawks hit the pond water, smack! at the end of their dive; all the debris that swans pull into their nests; the herring that are coming back into the pond now; how shallow it’s becoming up near the stone bridge … too bad, the town should do something about that.

“The name of my chimney sweep is in the left-hand kitchen drawer. He was reliable, always did a good job.

“Did I mention the sump pump? It has been making a funny noise. You should look into that.”

Then there were some scuffing sounds and the phone went quiet. I thought I heard someone telling Wally to hang up.

I know I started out talking about house wreckers. Some day they’ll come here, of course. They’ll find the I-beams and the Izzy Memorial and maybe even the lost key. And they’ll finally take Wally and me from the pond. But then we won’t care.

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