Gramma always said the house had “character”.
I didn’t remember ever being to the place as an adult. I’m not a young person anymore, so I may be wrong, but it does seem to me that I couldn’t have been more than eleven or twelve the last time I laid eyes on the place.
I also didn’t remember it as being so… crooked.
We were still quite a way out from it when we were first able to catch sight of it. It wasn’t a particularly big house, although my grandmother had raised seven children there. The roof was swaybacked as an aged mare, and the whole house seemed to lean.
Madge sat up straighter in her seat and stared until we lost sight of the house. The roads leading to the place twisted and turned, and so for the next few miles we’d only get glimpses. “Is that it?” she gasped. I could tell she was less than impressed.
“Um…it looks a bit…”
“It’s an old house, Madge.” I sighed. “It’s also a free house.”
“How long has it been since anyone lived there?” Madge demanded.
“Oh…let me see. Gramma moved in with Mom when I left for college, so–“
“Oh dear God!”
I threw a scathing glare at my love. “That sounded suspiciously like you were saying, ‘But you’re so OLD, Liv!’ Which,” I added, “I am.”
“Not at all,” Madge remarked mildly. “But that’s a very long time for a house to stand empty.”
“Mom never wanted to live there,” I said. “After Gramma died, she actually tried to sell it. But, it being so far out of town, she never got any offers.”
“And now, it’s passed down to you.”
Madge stared at the cottage as it once more came into view. “You called the county and had the power turned on?”
Under her breath, she muttered, “Surprised the power surge didn’t blow the place up.”
“I heard that,” I informed her haughtily.
“Do you suppose it actually works?”
I sighed again, and didn’t bother to answer. I wasn’t sure of anything.
The cottage disappeared into the trees as I took the next curve at a slower pace. Madge was fidgeting in her seat, and I was nearly holding my breath, waiting for her next words. I knew what they’d be, but it was still a bitter pill to swallow when she said, “Are you sure it was a good idea to give up our lease?”
I wanted to stop the car, but I drove on with some determination. “Madge, you know as well as I we were close to getting an eviction order. This economy–“
“The house is mine. The land around it, too. Free and clear–the property taxes are paid out of Gramma’s trust, and that continues until the family line–” I stopped abruptly. The family line ended with me.
There were cousins, of course. Mother had siblings. But the house had been left to her and her descendants. I was it, and I had never had children.
I could leave the house to one of the others, but the trust that funded the property taxes and other minor expenses would be done with.
Madge stared at her hands, neatly folded in her lap. We had discussed children; of course we had, and if we’d been of another generation we might have gone further than a discussion. But we’d both been in our thirties when we met and fell in love–not exactly a great age to be having babies, not with all the hoops we would have had to leap through to accomplish it.
I took a deep breath. “That doesn’t matter, because we can deal with who next gets the house later. For now, the place is home.”
“Home…” Madge let the word drawl on, thoughtfully.
The cottage popped back into view. I frowned. It looked…straighter. The roof line appeared less sway-backed.
Madge leaned forward in her seat, gasping. “Do you see that?”
“Uh…” I blinked hard. “It must be some trick of the light.”
“Maybe it was just a distance perspective that–“
“Made it look like it was falling over? I–I don’t know.”
We had a straight stretch of road to traverse, and would soon be arriving at the house. As we got closer, it looked even better.
“A fresh coat of paint, and it will be downright cute,” Madge declared.
“I’m sure there will be some roofing issues, and the porch might need some work,” I said. “But with no other expenses besides utilities, we should be able to swing it on our pensions.”
“Is it–is it already painted?” Madge asked. As we arrived, it appeared to have been painted a buttery yellow. There were no chips or faded spots that we could see.
Madge turned to me as I parked and shut off the ignition. “Did you send someone ’round to paint?”
“What, in the last half hour?” I couldn’t take my eyes off the house. It really did appear to be freshly painted, and it was a color both of us loved–warm and sweet, like early morning sunshine.
We got out of the car. Walking a complete circle around the cottage, it was clear that there were no repairs needed. The porch floor was intact. Every shingle on the roof was perfectly in place. No window was broken.
Madge stared at the house, then placed hands on hips and stared at me. “When did you have time to–?”
“I didn’t!” I protested. “I would have, of course; I planned to! I–I wanted to see it first, but–” I stared back at her, and shrugged. “My flabber is gasted, Madge, what can I say?”
Open mouthed, she studied me intently. She knew I wasn’t lying. “Well,” she said, “I don’t know whether to be amazed or terrified.”
I knew what she meant.
We had both seen the house before we arrived; we’d been seeing it off and on for miles. We hadn’t imagined the dilapidation.
Determinedly, I took out the key and marched up to the door. “Well,” I said, “I’m going to go with amazed. I’m sure there will be work to do inside, and we’ll do it. And it will all be amazing once we’ve moved in and made it our own.”
Inside, we discovered vague shapes under dust-covered sheets, and this was more like it–more like what one would expect of a house that had stood alone for a long time.
We lifted the sheets off carefully and took them outside for a good shaking, trying not to leave too much heavy dust in the house.
Under the sheets we found furniture that was perfectly intact and charming. Madge shook her head in disbelief. “Look at this beautiful chair!” She ran a hand lovingly over the tapestry. “I’ve always dreamed of having a chair like this.” She sank to a seat and sighed contently.
My grandmother had apparently be a fan of Queen Ann style; the table and chairs, the small sofa and the chair, a couple of occasional tables and a china hutch all reflected a time ages past. It was all in wonderful condition and beautiful, and I couldn’t believe our good luck.
We had rented a small furnished flat in the city for years, and had never owned much in the way of furniture. The moving van that was scheduled to arrive the next day had our clothes, musical instruments and books, and not much else.
“Let’s look at the bedrooms,” I suggested. “See what size bed we’ll be needing.”
The flat had featured a Murphy bed. “Ahh,” Madge sighed. “No more shoving the bed up into the wall! Joy, joy!”
We went upstairs. Furniture was covered with sheets in the bedrooms. The larger room held two full size beds and two big chests of drawers. The smaller room held a queen size bed, a wardrobe, a dresser and a chest of drawers. Neither room had a closet, but there was still plenty of storage space.
“How many kids?” Madge asked.
“Seven.” I grinned. “My mother was the youngest.”
“Wow. Close quarters.”
“We’ll have to clean up all this dust, but–I think we have everything we need!” I still couldn’t believe it. I flipped light switches. The power was on and working.
“I can’t believe no one wanted this house,” I continued as we went back down stairs that exhibited not a hint of a loose board or even a creak. “I think it’s charming!”
Sure, we were going to have to get a modern refrigerator and a washer and dryer, but those things seemed trivial now. I had anticipated a daunting job of repair and restoration, and now…
It was perfect, really. Anything else was going to be icing on the cake.
Madge slipped out the door and came back inside with my purse. “I think it’s time you read the letters your mother and grandmother left for you,” she said. “Maybe there’s some sort of explanation.”
“Like a caretaker or something?” I asked. “Okay.”
We sat at the table.
I read out loud. “My dearest Olivia,” I looked up at Madge and grinned. “Gramma never would call me ‘Liv’. She said I had a beautiful name and I should insist on using the whole thing.”
Madge smiled. “She wasn’t wrong, Olivia.”
“Stop it.” I looked back at the neatly scripted letter in my hands. “I have prayed for the day when someone would love my little house enough to make it a home again. I miss it so, but your mother insisted that I should not be alone, and she didn’t want to live so far away.
“I agreed to live out my days with you and your mother, not because I was alone, but because you were. When your father died, I was afraid June might come to wish she could join him; they loved each other fiercely, and it was a great blow to her.
“I know now she will not return to her childhood home, and none of my children are interested in it either. I have left instructions that it will go to you.
“You need to know that the house is special. It has great character. If it is loved, it returns the love. If love dwells within its walls, it thrives. If you call it home, it will be restored.”
Madge gasped, and I felt my jaw drop as I looked up at her. “She meant that literally, didn’t she?” Madge asked. She didn’t need or expect an answer, and so I just smiled.
I opened the letter from my mother. “Livvy,” I read, and grinned. She wasn’t adverse to nicknames. “What Gramma said. Ha ha ha!
“I want you to know I did love that house. We all did. But we had to balance that with the need for schools close by and other things that we thought were so important at the time.
“I’ve gotten wiser in my old age, and wish I’d done differently. But I wanted things for you…
“Well. You’ve done good things with your life, and you deserve all the best, and this house will be the best thing for you. I feel that.
“At this stage of your life, you and Madge are free to live as you like, where you like in your retirement years, and I know you will make the house your beloved home.
“And it will love you back. Believe it.”
I could feel the tears slipping down my cheeks. I smiled at Madge and she smiled back. “I do believe it,” I said. “I do love it, too.”
“So do I,” Madge agreed. “Coming home is the best thing we’ve ever done.”
Once again, inspiration from a prompt on Writers Unite! got this story on its feet. (I always wanted a living house–you know, a NICE living house.)