There's a tender presence on every floor of this house of the lives that played out here over the course of the twentieth century. Remarkably, it was owned by the same family since around 1900, one member of which appears to have lived most of his life here and perhaps reached the end of it on a bed that we removed from what will someday be our living room. We didn't know this man, but he lives on in his old house through the snippets we've been told and the essence of him that we have conjured from the remnants of his life.
In some ways, our revival of this house feels like a tribute to this family. After "the old man" passed, derelicts broke in, had some kind of party, trashed the place and set it on fire. Whether the fire was deliberate or not, we do not know, but Newburgh had become a rough place. Drugs, crime and disregard were rampant and the town's karmic violence came into this house and ran roughshod over this time capsule of the great American twentieth century.
It's hard not to romanticize what we find as we sort through the rubble. At first, I resisted the impulse out of a self-imposed emotional austerity. We were knee deep in someone else's nostalgia, three floors' worth, and did not want to be lost in sentiment. But it is jarring to pluck a delicate 70 year old handwritten letter from Poland out of the wreckage wrought by twenty-first century drug addicts!
Beautifully handwritten letters, pay stubs, church bulletins and newspapers that span the decades of the twentieth century; trinkets, pharmaceuticals, a rosary and a trench coat; fishing poles, an old iron sewing machine, a cash register; Depression era glassware, fabric swatches, coal burning stoves and actual buckets of coal: all scattered, strewn, shattered, plundered and charred. You bite your shovel into a gnarly pile of soot and plaster and the glint of a penny from 1918 catches your eye.
Pulling this touching ephemera out of the insult of the wreckage angered me. It felt like someone had gone into the "Bottom Drawer" at my mom's house, the place where the chronicle of my sister's and my childhood resides, and upended it, scattered it wide, set it on fire, pissed on it and stirred in some general mystery filth for good measure. It just felt mean.
Under these circumstances, maybe the matriarch wouldn't mind if I indulge in the elegant fantasy of her pretty glass bowls or romanticized the other-worldliness of her letters in our digital age. Her imprint has been buried in rubble here for years. This is not stuff of monetary value, but there is a deep ribbon of life running through the ugliness of a crime and it has indescribable value for me.
This house, now our house, is full of the future for me, but for an entire family it's the past. Someday, it will be the past for me. Resurrecting It presents a study of contrasts: the fleeting nature of life against the lure of ambition; the pull of the future and the weight of the past.