Mary Beth Writes

Yes, this was my column from August 29, 2001.

I the past two weeks Len and I have talked with 9 guys (and there are two more to consult) about doing some exterior work on our house. Replacing parts of gutters and some other really sexy stuff.  

Time for this old essay, I think.


There is small dusting of orange mold growing on our family room ceiling.  We are not pleased, since it indicates moisture is getting into our attic.  This is not fair, since we had a new roof put on our house last year.  The old one was pushing 30 years, we thought it was time.  (You could hear it coughing feebly in the night.) 

We still like the roofing company we chose because every time we call about a leak, mold, or mildew, they come right over and help us worry.  They have re-caulked the flashing around the chimney at least four times.   My husband stands with them; the men talk quietly and urgently about vents and airflow. 

My guess is that this will get fixed before our ceiling turns into the leading story on the evening news.  (Local Writer Turns Toxic.  Few Surprised.  Story at Ten)

This is not the only disturbing or ungainly thing about our home.  One of the doors on the front closet loosens itself every few months.  If you don't re-tighten it right away, the door tends to fall off its track, which is always a surprise.  There you are, innocently hanging your coat, when the whole closet sort of careens out of its track to crash on your head.  My son says this is why he leaves his jacket on the floor; he's saving wear and tear on the closet.   

Water drips off the side of the sink in the bathroom, so we keep a washrag under the soap dish to protect the floor from water damage.  Well, from more water damage. 

The clock on the microwave hasn't kept correct time in years.  Occasionally a guest will look at it, then jump up in alarm exclaiming they had no idea it was so late.  Sometimes we tell them it's the clock.  Sometimes we don't.  It gives us options.

There's a thistle at the back corner of the house that got so big by early July I didn't pull it, I let it grow to see how things would pan out.  It's now nearly as tall as the house and is crawling with so many bumblebees it sometimes sounds as if a chain saw is buzzing in our back yard. 

Oh, and the back left burner on the range doesn't work.  This is okay.  My husband and I are not four-burner cooks.  

Antique pagan philosophies and religions said all creation was made from the four elements of earth, wind, fire, and water.  Gods and goddesses were the divine beings who animated and controlled these elements.  Priests and priestesses were the humans who dared negotiate the spiritual territory between ordinary folks and the ravages of the elements.

Well, we've had a few millennia to get past that simplistic world view.  We now know that the world is made of subatomic forces held together with some kind of Einsteinian peanut butter.  There's beauty in nature, but gods and goddesses are just a bunch of fun metaphors.  No one believes in The Four Elements anymore. 

No one except people who live inside houses and apartment buildings.  There's nothing like one little house to turn Modern Mankind into Bawling Ancients crawling on their knees and pleading on their cell phones to anyone who claims they can defend a house from earth, wind, fire, and water. 

Of course, the priests and priestesses of this religion are plumbers, electricians, chimney sweeps, roofers, tuckpointers, and various other tradespeople who are not confounded by basement seepage and poor air flow in the attic.  I go to church regularly, but rarely do my Sunday morning feelings get close to the reverence and terror I have known in my own home. 

Have you ever gone into your basement during a rainstorm and noticed an odd puddle over there on the floor?  And then looked up to see water burbling out of hairline cracks in the foundation?  Shudder.  The basement sealing expert was not intimidated, but we were so unnerved we sold the house and left the state.

Or the morning I switched on the bathroom light in my first apartment.  A weird, greenish light suffused the small space.  I looked up at the globe fixture and wondered how it had obtained that curious tornado sky color overnight.  And then realized the fixture was filled with water. 

I called my landlady.  This woman, who had ignored quite a few requests for quite a long time, was suddenly very interested in my apartment.  Plumbers and electricians were standing in my (empty) bathtub not long after, re-creating balance among the Four Elements while racking up some dandy bills for Mrs. Foltos.

So I have come to this realization.  Don't call it home repair.  Don't get your knits in a knot because every time you turn around, you have to call another guy to repair another problem.

Call it Dabbling in Early Religion.  When there's a funny smell in the stove vent, or the toilet stack gets plugged by a fat and wayward squirrel, or mildew makes neon stripes down the walls, don't fuss and despair.  Look in the yellow pages under oracles and seers.  Gather your offering; generally wheelbarrows filled with cash.  Go to your nearest sacred grove and contemplate the ideal of a firm, dry house with windows that never leak, wiring that never blinks, a foundation that never shifts, and trim that never wiggles.

Now there's the ancient kingdom come.             




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