CXVI. The House of Seven Staircases

November 25, 2013 — I have been winterizing my home the past few weeks. This home was built in 1894, and although some repairs and improvements have been made since then, it needs more, like new plumbing, electrical wiring and workable storm windows. The house has 34 windows, not counting the windows in three of the four doors, the fourth being the basement Bilco doors. All but five have triple-track aluminum storm windows and screens installed over them, so I have been going around the house pulling down storm windows.

I have included a soundtrack with this plodding piece:  three compositions on my playlist in the right sidebar, by Chopin: numbers 36, 37 & 38: “Marche Funèbre” from the second piano sonata; “Largo in E” from “24 Preludes,” Op. 28; and “Nocturne No. 10, Op. 32 No. 2, respectively.

Since, oddly, the windows and the screens do not seat properly in their sashes, frequently sticking rather than sliding, this task involves fingernail breaking and colorful language speaking. These features notwithstanding, generally I pick the windiest autumn day for this project. The front and back aluminum storm/screen doors have large plate-glass windows that slide up and down in grooves. I raised the window on the back door sash easily, thus covering the screen and converting it to a storm door. The window on the front storm/screen door won’t budge, and it’s heavy. Last spring, I couldn’t slide it down to where it sits in the bottom half of the door. It came out of the sash, and I set it against the wall until I could get the guy painting the exterior of my neighbor’s house next-door to come fix it. Now it won’t slide up. All I need is to force it, have it come out of its tracks, drop it and break it. So I’ve left it until I can nab a likely candidate to help.

This house is of balloon-frame construction; that is, with no platform framing or drywall, so the joists run all the way from the foundation up to the attic. This allows air to circulate excellently: on the hottest breezy summer days with the doors and the 34 windows open, the house is comfortable. I’d leave the attic door open to enhance the circulation, but then the bats come down and circulate in my bedroom in the middle of the night. When I climb the attic steps, where Lancelot Dampwick, a former owner, removed the horsehair plaster from the lath lining the staircase walls, I can reach into the open space between the joists and feel an intense draft. This draft, as you might imagine, is chill in winter; and in any case, on windy winter days, even with the storm windows in place I wonder if I’ve left all the windows open: the wind blows right through not only the glass double layer but also the vinyl siding layering the clapboard walls, circulating magnificently. I can place my hand in front of any wall outlet and feel the draft. Drafting so splendidly, in the event of fire the house instantly would convert to one big chimney, spectacularly.

Jack the Handyman comes every spring and fall and carries my three window air conditioners from the first and second floor windows to the attic. The first floor window air conditioner is substantial and Jack accommodatingly transports it on a dolly up the main staircase to the second floor and, lifting it off the dolly, from there carries it up the winding attic staircase, setting it neatly against the wall dividing the large front room with the finished floor from the back, windowless storage area.

Out in the yard, to make it easier for Jack to simply pick it up and carry it down the outside cellar steps, thoughtfully I coiled my hundred-foot garden hose having the precise diameter and black and yellow markings as the garden snake we found coiled in the corner at the tortoiseshell cat’s feet in my friend’s house.

So Jack could get into the cellar, I descended the staircase out of the kitchen to the cellar, ascended the steps to the Bilco doors, opened them, and on the way back down, nearly trampled a herd of stampeding crickets who had settled their winter ghetto there.

Seldom have I lived alone, and here I have housemates – Marjorie the Mouse in the kitchen cupboard, and Jupiter and Jiminy Cricket around the kitchen. I rarely see the bats, only attic evidence of bugs they have eaten, so I can’t name them. The other day, I transported Jupiter, the big cricket, who was standing in the sink near a water puddle, into my backyard in a clean empty refried beans can. Jiminy’s still around, or maybe it’s Jennifer. It’s hard to tell. I do know their bodies sport nifty brown and black horizontal stripes, like little pullover sweaters, or jumpers, as the Brits aptly call them.

A few months after my mother and I moved into this house in August 2002, standing in the big attic room one winter morning, I noticed a tall thin thing in the center of the back of the attic. I walked over and peered through the climb-through opening in the wall separating the front and back sections. The sun, lower in the sky this time of year, shone through the front window into the back illuminating – a red brick chimney that had been truncated, probably when they re-roofed the house in the 1990s, so it no longer extends through the roof thus eliminating leaks around the flashing. I wondered why the wood shelves beside the kitchen stove, their surrounding paneling extending in equal depth from the wall and flush with the front of the stove, were so shallow. Somebody paneled around that same chimney there that formerly drafted the smoke from a woodstove, and put shallow shelves in the front. A woman near my age, who grew up in this house, told me that she and her three sisters would sit around the stove and watch their mom bake cookies. I don’t know if that was before or after that day while their mom was at the store they painted the two-story barn behind the house two shades of purple. Since the property sits on the top of a knoll, “It could be seen from all over town,” the woman said. That barn is long gone. In its stead is my shed under which the Peter and Bunny Cottontail clan lives. These girls’ dad cemented the hitherto dirt cellar floor, built the back steps (their initials and ‘51 are incised in the cement) and blocked off the back staircase to the attic, to create a closet on the lower landing. This is the closet where my clothes shrink on their hangers, in the room above the kitchen that I now use as my studio, with the winding staircase out of the kitchen, directly below the walled-off back staircase to the attic.

Their dad used the smallest upstairs room, my den, as his office. This is my reading room, where I sit in the chaise between the two perpendicular windows, beneath my bridge lamp. I am gradually converting my den to a library. I want to line one wall with floor to ceiling shelves. This is the perfect wall, since the front chimney juts out from the wall at the end next to the window, creating the perfect indentation for bookshelves. I could spend endless hours there among my books. Books are people’s souls.

Balancing the scales, though, is my love for music, and recently I was invited to and attended a free piano master class in the Steinway Hall in a store where they want to sell me a piano. They could move the piano into my house facilely, since only four steps lead up to the front porch and then one more from the porch into the entrance hall opening to a wide doorway into the living room. This doorway once accommodated pocket doors handily removed by a former owner who had undergone a lobotomy thus rendering him senseless to matters historical. Here, the problem is that at the price of the piano I want, I’d have to live in it. No more climbing stairs. I could fit inside a nine-foot grand, but I don’t know how I’d roast a turkey, mash potatoes and cook bacon Brussels sprouts or any other meal in it. Master classes are a great way to gain appreciation of an art. In piano master classes you learn about composition, the composer’s intention and how to enhance performance. Alas, few but I can enjoy such an event. I invited friends who replied that they vaguely recalled a definitely possible engagement they were somewhat certain they had probably committed to; that is, if they weren’t too busy winterizing their homes.

This week I carried my eight-foot artificial Christmas tree from the attic down to the living room. The tree is a beautiful, lush Norway spruce laden with cones. It comes in four heavy, unwieldy sections. I laid the sections out on the living room floor and then assembled them in the stand. This is tricky, because inevitably I place the second part in the stand first rather than the base part, and then wonder why it’s all wobbly. I have to take it apart and do it again. This year I bought those tiny clear lights to string on the tree until after Thanksgiving when I will add my fabulous bubble lights and other colored lights and ornaments. All of this was easier ten years past when I bought the tree. I saw a television commercial a few years ago where the guy stood in front of his tree with those little clear lights all in a tangle around his neck. Ultimately, giving up trying to sort them, he flung them at the tree. They looked artfully placed. Did I try this? Yep. They looked like someone flung them at the tree.

This house has seven staircases. This makes the house sound like a proper setting for filming “Downton Abbey,” thus requiring a below stairs staff. No, not trolls; rather, actual servants. The house isn’t that big, though; in fact, it’s rather small; simply, it’s tall and long and thin and has a lot of steep and winding staircases. At the least, I’d like to have a dumbwaiter; and no, not some inebriated footman who trips over your chair and spills the tomato bisque necessitating your ladling it out of your black satin pumps, the ones with the silk grosgrain bows; but since I usually carry my meals upstairs to eat while I am at the computer or watching a movie or TV, it would be handy to have that food lift. I’m glad the kitchen isn’t in the cellar, as many were in the old days. Two staircases lead from the cellar, one to the outside, through the Bilco doors and one up into the kitchen. From the kitchen, through the laundry room, are the back steps down into the yard, and, over by the sink, the winding back staircase up into my studio and, above them, the stairs from my studio to the back of the attic where the truncated back chimney exists. From the front entrance hall the main staircase leads to the second floor and at the far end of the upstairs hall, the winding staircase to the front of the attic.

From the attic windows, beneath the front of the three gables, unobserved, I can watch my neighbors cartwheeling in the middle of the street after eating their Thanksgiving turkey. No one looks up.

This year on Thanksgiving I will contact family, who live at a distance, and imbibe in a gathering at the home of a special friend.

My idea to use Chopin’s “Marche Funèbre” for a soundtrack was inspired by my tedium with this post and by a blog I follow, “Excelsior” [], where I was delighted to find that blogger not only enjoying my nerdy musical taste, but intelligently discussing it and providing a video with the performance.

May your home abound with warmth, love and laughter this Thanksgiving.

—Samantha Mozart