Sometimes you're so well-prepared for a task at hand you just know there's no way you'll do anything but crush it. Other times, well …
My gig inside a 200-plus-year-old living room last weekend was one of those other times. Or at least I think the room itself was 200-plus years old. The only incontrovertible fact was that no one was certain – not even the homeowners who now live in The Shopkeeper's House in a historic part of southeastern Pennsylvania – when the wooden structure was erected. (The house itself? Between 1776 and 1809. Maps proved that much.)
As a house hostess/tour guide for the day, I was assigned to this small room with wooden exterior walls but one fieldstone interior wall that led to a host of questions about whether we were in an original part of the home or one of its several additions. Didn't know, and my job was not so much to wing it as to go with it. That meant taking my cues from the visitors who seemed most knowledgeable, or at least certain of themselves, on this Candlelight Christmas tour.
After all, I reasoned, they hadn't paid their fee to mosey through other people's homes so much to soak up an ironclad history lesson as to transport themselves to another time and place entirely, still in our great state of Pennsylvania but far removed from how most of us live today. (And to pick up some nifty decorating ideas, of course.)
The bygone days made a lovely impression. You could imagine drawing water from a now-buried well. Or tending the fire in a hidden hearth, while three other working fireplaces coaxed smoke along an ethereal path through the corridors and out the back door.
A throwback wall print captivated all of us. Picture a starry, snowy night outside a longstanding local inn – and do call it an inn (classier) even if many comers had ridden up, for all intents and purposes, to a bar – on horses or mules or other ferrying animals, a few patiently hitched to posts.
Ah, those were the days, I sighed, merely smiling when visitor after visitor felt compelled to call out the big-screen television that jolted them back to the era at hand. Every house they'd seen on the day had one, they said, some shaking their heads. (Sheesh. Did they want period TVs, too?)
Not that I've been a house guide very often, but what people notice does intrigue. Two side-by-side headshots of a stern couple drew plenty of attention. They were just art, but a visitor and I named them Josephine and Abe and invented a bit of a life story.
Other details caught eyes, too. A porcelain knob on a bathroom door. A rustic nativity set on an old desk. Knob-and-tube wiring along the fieldstone wall, which challenged the addition-not-original argument.
Did it really matter if wood or fieldstone came first in Pennsylvania construction? Not to me. I tended to get lost in ruminations on how these surely affordable materials used back then command a king's ransom today.
But, above all, I couldn't help thinking how when I got home I'd hate my house. I pictured taking visitors through and pointing out the vinyl siding and non-original Lowe's kitchen tiles. (I'd say they were Italian salvage, but who'd buy it?) Maybe I could take small pride in plaster vs. drywall?
But, hey, other features aren't half-bad – wooden beams and stained glass, for example, in the kitchen. One recent visitor said it's like a church, which isn't really true but still kind of cool.
And the living-room fireplace works, though I won't talk about my track record with it, which is almost as bad as my record with flowers.
Speaking of churches and flowers, remember that arguably biblical imperative to bloom where you're planted?
Still a good one. No matter what they say about you 200 years from now.
Reach Sandra Snyder, the editor of At Home, at 831-7383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.