The last few days I’ve worked on my office, trying to make it into a room rather than a storage facility with a desk. I love old books and over the years have collected several. In organizing my bookshelf yesterday, I ran across a small, tattered book, the title no longer recognizable. Upon opening it, this is what I found on the first page:
“When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for; and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, ‘See! This our father did for us.’ ” – John Ruskin
Subsequent pages revealed the book as a builder’s guide called, “Audels Masons and Builders Guide #2 A Practical Illustrated Trade Assistant on Modern Construction.” The copyrights are 1924 and 1945. I remembered that I found the book in a box full of other old books and tomes given to us by Jay’s father who saved them from the rubbish heap in front of an even older house in Asheville, North Carolina. My eyes welled with tears at the sentiment that quote conveys, an attitude held through centuries by every major culture and society that ever existed until now. Now, it’s been discarded like the cheaply made technology we hold so dear, yet replace so easily.
John Ruskin was an interesting and, I dare say, very intelligent man. He was what might be called a “forward thinker.” Professionally, he was an art critic, a draftsman (or draughtsman, in the English spelling), an artist, and a prolific writer of critiques, lectures, letters, and articles. He lived from 1819-1900 and believed that future generations would one day look to the past to seek out its wisdom and ways in their quest to preserve the natural world and reverse man’s damage to it.
Sir John Everett Millais painted Ruskin standing alongside a Scottish waterfall in 1853-54. I consider the piece an apt representation of Ruskin’s personality and beliefs. Mallais was a pre-Raphaelite, and Ruskin was one of their greatest patrons. In researching Ruskin, for although I went to art school I don’t recall his name, I ran across a lecture he’d written and delivered to the London Institution in 1884. In it he describes his attempt to document a new cloud, one that darkens the sky heralding rain, yet never yielding it. He called it a “plague cloud” and said, though he tried, he found no mention of such a cloud in any historical writings, going back as far as Homer and Virgil. He goes on in his lecture to blame the cloud on the Industrial Revolution and air pollution. My research afforded Ruskin a new admirer in me, as I, myself, seek to preserve in some small way the wisdom and artifacts of the past.
We live in an ancient house by society’s standards. It is a grand old nonagenarian (I just wanted to use that word.), built in 1925, and still largely in its original form. It is exactly the type of building of which Ruskin would have approved. The only “updates” include the addition of central heat and air, a modernized kitchen, and a coat closet converted into a half bath about five years ago, although a coat closet would’ve been nice to have, also. The floors are all the original hardwood, and they still lay even and straight. The planks are scratched in spots, but they shine and glow with warmth after a Murphy’s Oil Soap bath.
The tiny one inch tiles in the bathrooms were laid individually by hand. The grout is greying in places, but the tiles are still whole, white, and smooth. The subway tiles on the walls lay flat and even, with barely a grout line in between. There are multiple tall, wide windows in every room, letting in warm, happy sunlight. When summer storms rage as they so often do in the South, with great gusts of wind that bring down large oaks and poplars, our house withstands the onslaught with not a tremor. Our house in Colorado, built in the 1990s, would shake and groan in a wind storm to the point that I was convinced it would implode in the next gust, but not this old girl. She stands up to every blast as easily as she did the first she ever encountered. Our garage is too narrow and short for most modern cars, built as it was to house a model-T, but a prius would fit. We use it for storage. When I go out there, I never fail to admire the brick work. There isn’t a crack in the mortar or broken brick anywhere. The cement floor is still just as smooth as the day it was laid. I must credit the craftsmen who built her with how beautifully she still stands. They meant her to last and she has.
I’ve spent hours visualizing the families that have lived here over the years. Trying to imagine the women in their neat dresses with matching hats, handbags and gloves, heading out for tea or bridge club. I’m particularly intrigued by the maid’s room in the basement, barely big enough for a twin bed and a chest-of-drawers, but with a private full bath. Who slept down there? Did she like working in this house? Did it take her as long to clean it as it takes me? I imagine her shooing the children of the household out of the kitchen, then slipping them cookies through the back door. I wonder if she was happy living in the bosom of a family, yet separate from it. There’s no way to ever know. These days our guests sleep down there on a queen bed that fills the room. They’re always skeptical of being comfortable when I show them to the “guest room,” but no one ever complains of a bad night’s sleep.
This house makes me nostalgic for times and places I missed by being born too late, but I’ve always considered nostalgia a pleasant feeling with its poignant, fleeting combination of sadness and joy. Southern summers also illicit my nostalgia. There’s a smell, an effervescence to the air, that transports me to other times, particularly to my childhood. July family reunions at my grandmother’s with my cousins. The reunions a bit superfluous since we most of us lived within 30 miles of each other and ate Sunday dinner together almost every week, but still, every Fourth of July, we piled in on Mema and spent the night, crowded into a house with three tiny bedrooms and one even smaller bathroom. The kids were generally so dirty at the end of the day that the aunts washed us on the back porch with the garden hose before we were allowed back in the house.
We never noticed the heat. We drank from that garden hose and rolled down the grassy bank behind the swings till we itched. Sunburned noses and scraped knees were slathered in aloe. The singing of katydids in the trees provided the soundtrack of those long days of freedom. The tinkling of the ice cream truck heard from down the street set off a mad dash for the adults who doled out quarters soon exchanged for the tangy sweetness of orange push-ups.
As I walked our dog the other day with my daughter riding ahead on her bike, the sun shining a lovely 80 degrees, enjoying the blooming azaleas and dogwoods in front of other houses as old as my own, a breeze wafted down the street, and I caught a scent that instantly brought back that feeling of childhood freedom. I was happy and sad all at once. The cousins have scattered; my grandmother died five years ago, and those family reunions have fallen by the wayside. But I still have summer and my grand old house, and regardless of the changes in society or technology, the smell of summer is still the same as it was 100 years ago. The katydids still sing, and the azaleas still bloom.
I think Ruskin was right about we future generations wanting to reconnect with the past. If I resist the pace and “convenience” of the modern world, there must be others who do, too. I can’t be the only one with a desire to learn to can food and sew clothes, wishing I’d paid more attention when my grandmothers did such things. I can’t be the only one with a desire for a phone call instead of a text or an email. I thank the Lord that I have a best friend who writes me letters, real handwritten letters with stamps that you have to wait days to receive. It’s a lovely feeling seeing my name and address written in that looping hand of hers, to know she took the time to write. What greater commodity do we have other than our time? We have no greater gift to bestow on another person than our time. Those letters are the embodiment of her time, solid proof of her caring and friendship.
I think Ruskin saw the advancements of society and the encroachment on the natural world and realized things would move too fast, be built too fast, be replaced too quickly. He knew we’d want and need to slow things down eventually. I look at my house, and I know that they don’t build houses like this anymore. Houses that with love and appreciation will stand another 100 years if they escape the frustrated destruction of some person who considers them too outdated for convenience. Sometimes I wonder if they still make men like John Ruskin. I pray that we do.