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“Flashbacks” – Havana home renovation yields hidden time capsule, invokes reflections on simpler times

I spent last weekend painting my kitchen cabinets “Bakery Box” white.

My husband had completed the hard work on the cabinets – designing, building, hanging, fitting – creating something solid and lovely out of nothing. The late afternoon sun poured into the kitchen as I worked, slowly covering each cabinet in two high-gloss coats, my brush methodically moving as the hours went by and the CDs played through – filling the house with the operatic Bocelli and the mystic Van Morrison.

Our house is an old one – more than 100 years. She (for all beautiful things somehow feel feminine) has withstood. She has held her Havana corner through many add-ons, remodels, and residents. Her sighs are creaks in hallway floorboards; her persistence is sticking wooden doors.

She has had other incarnations, but our goal is returning her to a bit of her faded glory – renewing her simple, old-fashioned design – adding a little new glamour in stained-glass windows and reclaiming the front porch for taking the view. Her new window awnings are like eyelashes for peeking out under, for watching the yard transform one camellia at a time as the red wheelbarrow (“so much depends upon it”) trundles back and forth beneath her gaze.

In the tearing down – amid the studs and sawdust – we discovered a carefully tucked Ziploc bag. It was a time capsule – left by others who worked on this house in a slow labor of love more than 30 years ago. Gingerly pulled from the plastic bag was the evidence of another remodel, another woodworker, even another reporter for “The Havana Herald.”

There was a faded typed note: (“I hope you keep my letter and pictures knowing that this house was loved…”), as well as photos of Bruce Gaver scraping paint and tearing out walls (and “acting up,” according the caption on the back of one picture). A program from the Havana Garden Club was included, with names and (landline!) phone numbers of all the members. There was someone’s lucky penny, a church bulletin listing $6,000 in the new building fund, and the November 19, 1987 edition of “The Havana Herald,” containing an article written by Mrs. Shirley Gaver. I recognized the names from our own demolition projects: “Shirley loves Bruce” joyfully declared in pencil on a wooden stud between the walls of the house. 

In the wall where the time capsule languished for decades now rests extra support for a huge stained-glass window. It looks small from the outside, but its 10-foot span dominates the living room; the setting sun spills a riot of color over the inside walls each evening. Some of the glass in the window is as old as the house, or so the story goes from the artist who created it. It’s a gorgeous swirl of hand-blown cranberry glass, deep sapphire facets, pale green squares marching across the bottom, and prisms that refract tiny rainbows when the sun hits them just right. 

“I can’t work unless I’m in the mood,” Paul Vickrey, the artist, often told me. My left-brain impatience with his idea of “work” never improved his speed on any window he made for us. He lived in the attic of our previous home, an eccentric pony-tailed hermit who ventured downstairs and created beautiful art in the workshop while we were gone to our day jobs. He lived in flashbacks – a self-styled “burned-out old hippie” who walked the streets of San Francisco during the “Summer of Love” in 1967. His stories of the “olden days” could go on interminably; he could speak with the same loquaciousness about any piece of glass. Each of his windows a story to be told, he understood slow labors of love.

Last weekend, I worked on painting the kitchen cabinets so long that the setting sun cast dancing light across the walls. I thought about Paul Vickrey, a gentle spirit who died a week before his birthday last November. As the sun moved through the stained glass, the unmistakable harmonies of Crosby, Stills, and Nash flowed from the speakers, one of Paul’s favorite groups:  “He runs wishing he could fly, Only to trip at the sound of goodbye.”

Yes, this house has seen the passage of time. She has been new and old and new again. She has watched people move in and move on, she has felt their demolishing touch and their tender renovations, she has held their tears and their time capsules. She will most likely see age overtake the bright coats of Bakery Box white on my kitchen cabinets, and years from now, will observe the discovery of my own time capsule, tucked behind the walls along with the 1987 version.

“Imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress and change…And in all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty,” wrote John Ruskin, the Victorian-era art critic and philanthropist. “All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy. Accept this then for a universal law, that [no] noble work of man can be good unless it be imperfect.”

I don’t want a professional builder (though my husband raises an eyebrow at this), an experienced painter, or a standard set of pre-made cabinets. I have no desire for a fast remodel; I see now the attractiveness of a slow labor of love. I want to know the tiny dip in the wood frame just there along the window. I want to clear away weeds and find the tenacious rose planted a lifetime ago by other hands. I want to know each imperfection and the stories behind them. I want to hear the creaking sighs and take the view from the front porch. I want to watch as a house is lovingly transformed into a home—where I see my husband’s wooden craftsmanship, our friend Paul’s glass brilliance, and my own contributions of fresh paint and fresh flowers. I want to stand in the colored reflection of imperfect beauty while my heart trips at the sound of goodbye. 

By Tammy Dasher

Photos by Tammy Dasher
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