who will be the caretakers?

One chilly New England morning in our drafty 17th century house, our daughter was hurrying around in nylon stocking feet across our splintery wide pine floorboards in search of shoes.  Needless to say, she was not in a good mood when her stockings caught on some protruding rose head nails  “completely ruining her day.”  More than thirty years of living  in this house, maneuvering through the worst of its restoration days, and she still thinks she can walk barefoot across the floors unscathed?  She swore that if we left her the house, the first thing to be replaced would be those ornery floorboards.

And I thought I knew this child?  I actually thought she would be the one who would care the most.  I thanked heaven for that revelation, and now know what to do with our house when we’re done with it.  There will be interviews!  There will be a protective covenant!  There will be photos and pleading and overseers.  I will pay someone to maintain “no trespassing signs” for perpetuity.  I’d rather nature took it back than have some ignorant soul replace the floors with smooth sanded tongue and groove, the windows with insulated ones with snap in grills, vinyl siding, asphalt roofs and aluminum doors.  Our biggest nightmare is to have a future owner disgrace it.  But unless you can leave it to a preservation society with a huge endowment, there are no guarantees.  Ignorance, naiveté, insensitivity, abound.  The only guarantee is that, if possible, future owner be forewarned – I will come back to haunt you.

This brings me to a question that many of us antiques lovers are asking these days – is there enough interest from today’s youth to sustain these old homes for tomorrow?  Everyone under 40 seems to be glued to their blackberries, computer screens, GPS’s and cable TV.  In between they’re fitting in everything from Yoga to Zumba, carting kids to a dozen activities, and trying to earn a living in a recession.  Who has time to care about old houses?  They’re expensive to fix, drafty to heat, and difficult to maintain.  In an age of quick fixes and cheap solutions, ambiance, character and history take a back seat.

It’s a cycle.  These homes have lived through this before.   Many were lost, but this time I think the indignities previously mentioned, like vinyl siding and asphalt, will actually sustain them until that next generation of sensitive, caring folk – enjoying a recurring prosperity – can rediscover and restore them.

Recently I wrote a letter to an editor of an antiques journal, commiserating with his laments on the digital age and lack of youthful interest in all things old.  Here are excerpts:

Hello Mr. Fiske,

…..I was just reading your article about the digital age.  Well done, as usual, and a bit distressing.  Yes, we are surely seeing a great change in technology and culture as we’ve previously known it, and we, as old dogs, will have to learn new tricks.  It’s disconcerting at this stage in our lives, but we were not promised an end to the challenges, just a little help with medicare and living expenses :)

But our hearts still warm at the sight of a banister back chair, or the warm patina of an old dresser.  And yes, there’s nothing like seeing it in person.  Of course, I have to touch it.  I have to reach into the past and connect with its maker.  (Which is why I’m dangerous in museums!)  ….. I have hope that the younger generation will eventually come around, and slow down enough to notice these treasures.  While they’re busy right now trying to carve a life out of a dense job market, and scramble through this awful recession, I believe they will turn their attentions backward again, when they realize that everything of substance is behind them.  The virtual world may be good for certain technical, medical and scientific progress, and a bit of entertainment, but we are still human.  We still long to touch something of quality, something hand crafted with style and grace.  We need to connect with our ancestry, and learn something of our past.

I think, for this new generation, it is not the product, but the packaging.  I believe they would love the product once they were introduced to it.  Their heads are in the stars right now, but their feet are still on the ground.  They live in houses that need furniture for comfort and art for the soul.  With patience, wisdom, and a little savvy, we can engage them in their world…..

….Toward that end I am presently fashioning a program to introduce students to 18th century architecture.  I think they’ll be inspired to see the early house frame and how they can take it down and put it up again with pegs, and how the early craftsmen fashioned their doors, their paneling, their cupboards, and how “green” is not a new concept, but it’s been right here in their own back yard for over two hundred years.  If even only a few are inspired, then we can gain satisfaction in knowing that the job of preservation and the work of caring for our treasures, large and small, will continue to flourish with them….”

We must be active and alert in our struggle to maintain enthusiasm for the treasures of our heritage.  It is not just the work of preservation groups.  We must be personally diligent, patient and persevere.

Now I have to go hug my house, and have a talk with my daughter.

5 thoughts on “who will be the caretakers?

  1. Your daughter is so fortunate to engage within a lifestyle choice like yours – the passion you have for your “trade” – the intensity of perseverance – will be with her for life – … I have noticed it in this recession that kids who have grown up in homes – where the handcrafts were respected and held in high esteem – were the ones providing me with substantial support in acquiring our handmade tiles.

    My professor at art school used to say – You think you are doing something new – oh no – there is always proof that it was done before!

    Thank you for the beautifull script!


  2. Speaking as someone in their 30s who loves everything to do with history, I would encourage you not worry too much. We are out there, enjoying history though we tend to congregate on the internet, and communicate by text, but we’re also watching the auctions and keeping track of publications (especially if they are electronic.)

    I grew up in an old house. I did not buy one when I became a home owner because of the cost to heat them. Instead I spend my weekends living in a tent at reenactments, or going to museums. I carry on the legacy of living with history passed down by my parents in ways that are different from theirs, but I hope just as effective.

    I am excited to hear about your 18th C. house program for students, good luck with that!

    co-host, Living History Podcast

  3. Wonderful post. I particularly liked your comment about how “green” is not a new concept. We old house owners are constantly recycling and repurposing old wood, floorboards, etc. as well as thinking of how sunlight and exposure aids in warming and cooling a room. I am convinced that our ancestors knew more about how to make nature “work” in a home than most so called experts today. Our own 18th century cottage may be humble, but it has a feel to it that money can’t buy. It’s buried within its soul.
    Great idea about your program for students. It’s the best history lesson you could give.

  4. You are so right, Joanne, the feel is buried within its soul – a result of the heart and soul they poured into it. We have learned, and still have more to learn, from them. From their common sense plantings of two trees outside of their south facing house – for shade in summer to sun in winter – to using natural materials at hand to fashion a shelter that would not only sustain them, but us, for three hundred years. Their legacy is priceless. Thanks so much for your comments.

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