Our basement has two parts: one unfinished and the other…more unfinished.
I always enjoy showing off the more unfinished part on house tours, because I never get tired of saying, “This is where we hide the bodies.” I was a little concerned when we first moved in that we MIGHT one day find a skeleton buried under all that dirt, but so far we’ve been disappointed. The cats love it, though.
Not ten steps from the main door to the house is a trapdoor, which accesses that part of the basement. I’ve never been quite sure of the reason for locating a trapdoor so close to the main entrance; it all seems a little, I don’t know, unwelcoming to guests.
Renovating old houses is, above all, a dirty business. Sometimes you open up a wall or a floor or a pipe and you just don’t want to look. Mouse skeletons, a three-foot-long wasp nest, slimy gunk that probably self-conceived in 1946: it can be ugly. Sometimes you get rewarded, however. We have a shelf full of stuff we’ve pulled out of the walls, from old glass medicine bottles to a large German shell casing. When we first moved in, there was even an antique urinal in the basement; one which might have been easily converted to a lovely planter and posted on Pinterest, but one which I really couldn’t stomach keeping - even though it was an antique. And I do like my antiques.
In addition to the dirt and mystery gunk, our house unfortunately plays semi-permanent host to asbestos and lead. Granted, we’ve come a long way in ten years, but still they linger like uninvited neighborhood children at a backyard barbecue. Someday, perhaps, we'll be rid of them both.
(And someday, perhaps cats will decide to start cleaning out their own litter boxes.)
As I mentioned before, our house came to us clad in asbestos shingles. We knew this would be a problem. We knew we wouldn’t be able to put up with them for very long, even if they were in decent shape. No, they would have to come down. Eventually. After we finished a few more pressing projects.
We moved in at the end of October. I lasted four months.
The shingles were driving me out of my mind. I couldn’t help thinking of them as a giant, unnatural scab that was slowly suffocating my house. So, one day in February, I picked up a crowbar and trudged out behind the barn (which had also been included in the shingling project), climbed up onto a snowdrift and started whacking.
Of course, I knew at the time that this wasn’t exactly the most practical approach to the problem. Cleanup would be difficult because of the snow, and it was just possible that by busting up asbestos shingles I was actually doing something illegal.
But, never fear. This is New Hampshire, the "Live Free and Die," er, sorry, I mean "Live Free OR Die" state.
It turned out that, at that particular time, there were actually very few laws concerning asbestos removal in effect - no tents or HAZMAT suits required. I doubt the State even cared if we wore masks. Nope, as long as we double-bagged and labeled it, we could haul it right to the dump ourselves. (Incidentally, the laws since then have strengthened significantly - which is why it’s a good thing we didn’t wait.)
I didn’t get very far with my shingle-bashing that winter, unfortunately. First off, well, not to overstate the obvious, but it was cold. You had to bag the shards immediately, lest they freeze into the snow, and my gloved hands were little better than paws for picking them up. Furthermore, I found that I ran into the same problem I had with the lath and plaster: inadequate upper-body strength. (Let’s just say that Salon Pas is now my friend.) Once again, this would be a job for Dear Husband.
So, okay, that turned out to be one of our longer-lasting projects. Each and every ugly-a** shingle was painstakingly removed by hand (with crowbar extension), packed into boxes, double-bagged and taken to the dump. Underneath we were pleased to find the orginal clapboard siding fairly well intact. As it turned out, DH only had to replace the clapboards above the porch roof on the west side of the house. (I hope to post a picture of him doing this in my next installment, along with several others of the house - as soon as I can figure out how to do it.) Other than that, we just had to plug up the holes where the previous owners had blown in insulation, scrape, sand and repaint the entire house.
I'm pretty sure that all ended up taking a couple of years, and involved some truly questionable safety-related decisions. Like if either of us end up with Mesothelioma in our 60s, you'll know why. I furthermore have memories of set-ups involving: one ladder to the porch roof, a two-by-four nailed into the porch roof itself and, behind it, another ladder extending up to the gable peak of the house, a husband afraid of heights (and me supporting his ladder) and neighbor children standing on the ground below yelling up, "Whatcha doin'?" -children who are right in the line of fire should the whole apparatus come crashing down.
(Incidently, I have seen the DH fall off the porch roof on at least two occasions, and it was frightening, to say the least. Thankfully, though, both times were in the winter and he landed on a pretty large snowbank. Still, though. Yikes.)
If removing asbestos from our house has been like removing a scab, dealing with lead paint has been more akin to battling a virus. Because it's everywhere: from the paint on the porch to the paint on the interior doors, right down to the house dust itself. It has been there so long and has been disturbed so often that there is most likely not one square inch of the structure it does not inhabit. Which is why it was somewhat amusing one day when Monkus' pediatrician said to me:
"You really should have your house tested for lead."
Me: "Uh, are you suggesting we target specific elements, or do readings on each room, or...what?"
Doc. L.: "Just have your house tested for lead."
Me (in my head): "Gee, thanks. And if it comes back that our entire house is caked in lead, what exactly are we supposed to do? Move? Not. A. Possibility."
And, as it turned out, the State of New Hampshire agreed with me. There was no point in testing the house for lead, as we already knew the outcome. The question was what to do about the Monkus.
Despite what might appear to be a flippant attitude on my part towards the whole lead situation, I actually was in a bit of a panic around Monkus' 9-month wellness visit; because that's when I found out he had a blood-lead level of 9. At that time, if your child tested at 10, the State would actually swoop in on your house, build up a caseload of paperwork regarding your child's unhealthy environment and actually provide assistance in lead abatement. So, as we didn't quite qualify for state assistance, and we had no money to hire contractors to work on the house, I was in a quandry.
Thankfully, I had at my disposal some useful information. As most of you know, I've spent a lot of time working with immigrants and refugees and the other people who work with them. A couple years before this incident, I had been serving on a State DOE committee for ESL and had just happened to strike up a conversation with another ESL instructor from Manchester. She was heavily involved with the local Somali refugee population and was telling me that they were currently experiencing a near-epidemic in lead poisoning among the children.
When I asked why the incidence of lead poisoning was higher among the Somali children then among other New Hampshire-born kids living in old houses, she replied that most of the Somalis, having spent years in refugee camps before relocating to the states, had severe iron deficiencies. She added that, apparently, in the absence of adequate iron levels, the human body will instead absorb any heavy metal it can get it's cells on: especially lead.
So, the way I chose to deal with the Monkus and his Level 9 scare was to pump him with iron. In addition to supplements, I made sure almost all solid food that went into his body was a source of iron. I fed him oatmeal with blackstrap molasses. I ground up walnuts (thankfully no allergy there) to mix into it and other dishes. I uses almond milk and flaxseed oil in much of my cooking for him. As for vegetables, I made sure he ate pureed spinach (or kale) at least every other day.
Between that and the fact that, as babies get older, they naturally spend less time on the floor, his lead level slowly declined to where it is now at a 3.
I tell you this story not to be smug, though I admit I am proud of this slightly out-of-the-box solution on my part, but because I want to demonstrate that sometimes with old houses, you have to accept what you've got and adapt accordingly. Nontheless, as we replace more and more of the original trim, we are automatically reducing the amount of house-lead for our own family as well as future owners, which I feel pretty good about as well.
At this point, I would like to mention my favorite renovation site on the web: www.oldhouseweb.com I've been on this site for years, long before it acquired the slick look it has now and when it consisted of mainly just the Forums. I've never posted anything on it myself, because I've never needed to. Many of the topic hosts and regular posters on the site have an enormous amount of renovation/restoration information to offer and I have found guidance on everything from windows to heating systems to paint colors and floor finishes. Of course you do occasionally find yourself bogged down in arguments over vinyl vs. wood windows or why-you-must-preserve-that-steam-radiator-system-at-all-costs, but that just comes with the territory.
And then there are the stories, some of which are legendary. There's the guy who bought a house like ours in Northern Ontario and spent the first several years sleeping on a cot in the kitchen next to a woodstove because there was no working heating system in the house. He conducted the entire home renovation from that kitchen.
Then there's my favorite story, which may well be an urban legend and, if not, should be elevated to that status if only for its pure outrageousness:
A young couple bought a three story house with a bathroom on the third floor. That third-floor bathroom contained a cast iron clawfoot tub which was still in great condition. One night, the wife decided she would finally take a bath in that tub, which she had been dying to do since they moved in. So, she turned on the water and came back down to the first floor to grab a towel and clothes. While chatting with her husband for a minute or two, they all of a sudden heard a creak, a whine and then a tremendous CRASH. And then another. And lo and behold, the clawfoot tub, along with the water and no small amound of lath and plaster, was sitting right in the middle of the living room floor! The poster wrote that, once the dust cleared, they could see all the way up from the living room the third floor ceiling.
And, really, for those of us who love old houses, doesn't that story just illustrate why? I mean, other than uncovering a hidden box under the floorboards that contains enough cash to cover all the renovation costs plus pay off the mortgage, what better story could we have to tell about our houses than that? Yes, I admit it. Although I would have hated the cleanup and repairs, I am slightly jealous of the clawfoot tub story. (I do have to wonder, however, why it ever occured to the original owners of the house to haul up a, most likely, 600 pound tub to the third floor. Crazy, tyrannical mother-in-law, anyone?)
Renovating (or restoring, or "resto-vating" as I refer to our project) and old house is truly a labor of love and, if you can get past some of the dirtier and more offputting aspects of it, can be an ultimately satisfying, even fulfilling, experience. I know that most old-homeowners out there would agree.
Someday I will have to revisit the more unfinished part of the basement to lay a plastic sheet across the dirt floor (to prevent moisture buildup on the floor joists), but I can't bring myself to do it just yet.
Who knows, though? Maybe in a few years the Monkus will be more than happy to do it for me. And while he's down there, he may just find that box of cash we're all counting on. Or a graveyard of mouse skeletons.
Either way, I'm sure he'll be thrilled.