Lives of the House

Caroline Adderson

A basement shrine in her 192s home inspires Caroline Adderson to discover the past lives of her house and its inhabitants.

The house we bought had a shrine in the furnace room. I discovered it only after we moved in, when I made the room a catch-all for the things I’d been unable to part with during the move but that we didn’t really need. My son’s first crib, for example, which he slept in for the first three months of his life. I’d rescued it from the dump, stripped away its many layers of pink and blue paint, and now I was attached to it. I attach to things in general, particularly old things, not just sentimentally but out of a belief that stories accrue like an electrical field around even ordinary objects, stories about how and where the object was made and all the people who used it. I could picture the boy babies and the girl babies who once slept where my son also had. And now I had discovered a secret shrine in my house tucked around the corner of the chimney. If anything radiated a story, it was the long black rosary beads from Italy, and the wooden crucifix hung on two nails in a way that made the small bronze Jesus seem twice crucified, and the tin medal that read I will bless the houses in which the picture of my sacred heart shall be exposed and honored.

I wondered who had placed the shrine there, but I was busy with the move and a six-month-old baby and my vague dream of restoring the house, which had been built around 1925, but had been so wallpapered and brown-carpeted that little of its original character showed. Through our next-door neighbour I asked the people we’d bought the house from, an older Czech couple, what they knew about the shrine. They’d been aware of it, but not its provenance and, though not religious, they’d left it intact because, my neighbour reported, “They felt it was protecting the house.”

Over the next few years I peeled away more than ten different wallpapers. We took down the wood panelling in the living room and the mirrored wall tiles in the stairwell. In the tiny attic room that was to become my office, I catalogued these layers:

Pink paintGreen squiggled wallpaper with kelly green trimBlue squiggled wallpaper with sky blue trimYellow paintJelly bean wallpaperGeneral Paint “Tequila” with Benjamin Moore “Elephant Tusk” trim

Layer 6 was me. Stripping and scraping, pulling up the blue shag carpet and discovering a beautiful streaky blue-green linoleum, then prying away those tiles and uncovering virgin fir floors, I felt like an archaeologist bringing to light the tastes and materials of each era. And I found myself wondering not just who had put up the shrine, but who had made these particular aesthetic choices through the decades.

Then, after four years of showerless living, we renovated our bathroom. During the ordeal the plumber cut a hole in the lath-and-plaster wall of the master bedroom to access the pipes. An extraordinary thing happened that night; a deep loamy smell filled our bedroom, so strong and so strange it woke me up. The house was exhaling, or so it seemed, releasing this graveyard odour. When I told the plumber about it the next day, he laughed. His grandfather had been a plasterer. The men used to urinate in the mortar, claiming it improved the mix. Even if it was just workmen’s piss, in my half-dream in the middle of the night I believed I was smelling the lives of all the people who had lived there before me. Now I was sufficiently curious to find out who they were.

The research turned out to be easy. There are annual city directories at the public library that list the residents of every address and their occupations as far back as you care to go. Our address first appeared in the 1926 directory. A retired William J. Richardson lived in our house. The following year there was a new owner, Walter M. Scott, a salesman for “Can Prod.” What was that? Canadian Products? Canada Produce? Because the old directories were on microfilm and most reels covered only one year, I had to keep getting up and walking across Special Collections to exchange the films. These little breaks created some suspense. Would my salesman with the literary name still be there? Yes, he was! Each time I was relieved he had stayed on. Then, in 1934, a Clela P. was added. He’d got married! Congratulations, Walter M. Scott, salesman! In 1937 he bought his own business, the None Better Dairy, but by 1939 he seemed to have lost it, as there was no occupation listed for that year. Luckily, he was able to start over the next year with “Scott Prod.”

It was sounding like a story. Walter M. Scott, salesman, was putting on flesh, his veins filling with blood. He was an industrious man, a risk taker who sometimes failed, but bounced right back. I pictured him in a fedora, Clela in a chignon (mostly because I like the word chignon), her arm wrapped tightly around his. They were devout Roman Catholics, of course.

1942—Dairy prod. and eggs, 2344 Granville

1948—mgr, Scott’s Prod.

The cryptic listing for 1954 read: Scott, Mrs. CP Clela P wid. WM prop. Yorkshire Smokes 512 Hornby. I hunched before the microfilm reader trying to decipher this. Finally I understood; Walter M. Scott was dead. He’d bought a smoke shop and then he died. I felt a little pang for him, this person whose existence I knew only through a strip of celluloid, yet to whom I was connected through the rooms we had both inhabited.

Clela lived on in my house for another year, then Rodney G. Dove, passport agent, moved in with his wife Helena. From 196 to 1967 John F. Kerk-Hecker, an engineer, lived there with his wife, Jean, and his widowed mother, Rosemary. Mrs. Jean Kerk-Hecker became the secretary treasurer of the Vancouver Ticket Centre in 1964 and John the president and managing

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