An Idea a Day: #5 Good Bones

vintage derelict kitchen

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Ok, so I slacked off on Friday and didn’t post my idea. It was for good reason. I had some decision making to do that was occupying all my mind power.  More on that next week, but for now here is the last post in my Idea a Day series. It has been a fun week to to tap the creative recesses of my brain, thanks to those of you who have been reading and encouraging me along.

Good Bones

This idea came to me this week when I was talking to a friend about how my next door neighbor had lived in her house from the time she was 20 until she turned 95 and had to enter assisted living. Her name was Sylvia and just like an old vintage bungalow she had really good bones. She fell more times than I can remember and each time the ambulance came we worried it would be her last trip. Yet each time she bounced back and would be found planting flowers in her front yard, or changing the lightbulb on her porch by climbing a ladder mere days later. I would shudder each time I saw her doing that, but she refused any help. She would say if God is going to keep me here any longer I may as well keep working.

Her wits were always completely with her, she remembered every conversation we ever had and when she asked about my kids she would recall that they were both born on a hot June day. It was amazing. She would tell us stories about our neighborhood in such vivid detail that we could almost visualize the grand maples in front of our house that perished in a rare Portland ice storm. She knew all the names of the people who lived in our house before us, which ones had dogs, when they converted our full porch to a half porch and extended the living room and that the rose bushes on the side of our home were more than 75 years old. Each conversation with Sylvia brought us closer to the memories of our home. These were details and facts that we would never have known about without using her mind as our house history book.

Sometimes Sylvia would complain that she had already lived a long and happy life and was just ready to go because her body just couldn’t keep up with her mind anymore. It was those moments that I felt really sad for her. I couldn’t imagine having her sharpness and drive to do things but not having the strength in my bones to move. When she finally had to go into assisted living it was because she started to show signs of dementia. It was really horrible to watch. Her hallucinations were not the harmless type. She was tormented by thinking she heard a ten year old boy screaming in pain because he was being beaten. She started wandering from her home to bang on neighbor’s doors to try to rescue the boy she swore was hidden in their houses.

There of course was no ten year old boy and soon it became apparent that it was time for her to need daily assistance. I can’t imagine the torture she was going through inside her mind. To think you heard a child being abused each day and not being able to save them or have anyone believe you would be terrifying and as a mother of five children herself, it must have been awful for her. I often wondered if this was just a trick her mind was playing on her or if she had witnessed something like this in her past and the memory was only now coming out as a hallucination as her aged mind began to fail her.

Her descent into dementia also reminded me of the finality of life and how so many objects live on beyond us. We all put so much time into things like our homes and when we are gone, they are sold off and as our belongings depart and a new family moves in, the personal touches and the history that we put on a home often disappear too. I was always so grateful to have Sylvia to fill in those gaps for me. I was able to learn so much about my house from her but I wished I could see the pictures of it before some of the changes took place. Sylvia was my window to the past and when she was gone, I didn’t have anyone else to ask.

Ever since I was a little girl I had been fascinated by a homes history. I lived in the same house from the time I was born until the time I was 18 and went to college. My favorite story about my parents house was that it had actually been moved to it’s current spot from the other side of town. Apparently the house on our lot had burned down and so my Dad’s aunt had purchased a home and had it raised and moved to the location it still stands today. From the outside you would never know this, but if you went down into the basement you could tell that the foundation came from another home and had been adjusted to accomodate the new house’s footprint.

The other part I loved about our house is that we had a coal bin. It was essentially a unfinished dirt floor crawl space with outside access so that coal could be dropped off and stored until it was scooped into a stove to heat the house. By the time I was growing up in that house, there was no longer a coal stove. The coal bin had become a wood bin housing the kindling my dad would use to fuel a little wood stove he would light during the winter months so that he could stay warm while working on his hobby of refinishing wood golf clubs. I loved to crawl onto that wood pile and pretend their were hidden treasures buried by the previous owners beneath the dirt floor.

Every house has a history or a story to tell, and often, unless you have a neighbor like Sylvia, the stories of your home remain secrets trapped in those good old bones of a home. I think it would be amazing for people to have a collective place to easily be able to tell the stories about the homes they lived in, learn about a house they are living in now or not have to wonder what the new owners have done to a place they once called home. The demand is there, you always here stories of people going to their childhood home to take pictures, but I would love to see an app or service that could facilitate this and make it less daunting to discover the past or present.

Home owners, past residents or neighbors could claim addresses, submit stories, upload old photos and share how the homes have transitioned and changed over time. You could see what your yard looked like, the layout your kitchen had before its remodel or just learn if kids grew up your house. It would also be great for set designers and interior decorators to see period stylings or those looking to renovate a home back to it original form.

Of course all houses are not old, but they will be one day so starting to document it now would be a fascinating way to provide a time capsule to future owners. Documenting a home has never been easier through camera phones. In fact many people are unknowingly already documenting their homes history through Instagram, Facebook, Vine and geolocation apps, it is just a matter of providing an interface that can bridge the past and the present and connect them to the owners of a property.

The app would rely heavily on user generated content to be successful, and there will be some gaps where photos were destroyed or past owners are gone, but there are always decedents or neighbors who may have a picture or two. They are also some security risks, obviously you wouldn’t want to document your house in a way that lays out a “how to rob road map” to a cat burgler or exposes your children to an unseemly character, but I think if done right the fascination people have with vintage era and increasingly voyeuristic curiosity people have been fulfilling through social media would eventually outweigh the fear. It would be an interesting study to watch this type of community grow and change just like a real neighborhood.

For those interested in how Sylvia is doing, she is still alive, arguing with the nurses and doctors who are trying to do “her work” for her and probably trying to change a lightbulb as I write this. She is going on 97 this month and still asks her son about how her house is doing and how my kids are growing up when he visits her. I am comforted knowing that in a mind as rich as hers, my children have been able to carve out their spot in her history.

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  1. Marshall
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    Sheryl, I liked all these ideas a lot, but I thought the hair ties were the best – until I read this one. I want this app very much. I so want to know more abount the history of my house, my neighborhood etc. I don’t know how likely it is that enough content would get added, but someday thtat might change. I love the idea.

    • Appatomy
      Posted March 27, 2013 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

      Marshall, I think the likelihood of getting good data from the past is going to be sparse at best, but I look at it as us having an opportunity to chart our houses as they are now for future residents 🙂