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Russell Wangersky: A house fortified with words

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Russell Wangersky
Russell Wangersky

There are notes everywhere.

Take off some of the old eight-inch vinyl siding, its surface pitted to buff beige by the elements, remove the long sheet of quarter-inch of sodden and mossy polystyrene beneath it, and there, on the long white peeling clapboard, there’s more of it. Numbers, measurements, sometimes letters, sometimes small diagrams of angled cuts. It’s written in thick, heavy carpenter’s pencil, and it’s not just once or twice. Some of it makes immediate sense; the measurements for filling vinyl gaps as you approach the corners, for example.

Other parts do not; “For the eighth,” a sentence starts, and then trails off into smaller, unreadable letters. “LOOK,” all in caps, with nothing else. Pressed deep, so that it’s right into the wood.

Flip over a piece of paper in a bottom drawer in the kitchen, and what looks like a drawer liner is a hand-drawn scale map of the septic system and drainage field, the drawing collapsed to fit the space on the paper, but the measurements precise.

Take down ceiling moulding, and every gap between the top of the wall and the bead-board ceiling is packed tight with tightly balled up paper: sometimes newspaper, sometimes old detective magazines from Quebec. More often than not, old lined paper, brown with age and crumbling along the folds, all of it with faint tracings of HB pencil, a looped and whorled script from when such things were taught in school by constant careful repetition.

The notes are more mysterious. Perhaps it’s as simple as being the most plentiful and available insulation.

Sometimes, it reads like someone’s homework: sentences about history or geography, numbered at the start. Other times, it reads like a hugely passive-aggressive way to hold an argument: writing “These are my worst faults,” then making a list of everything from impatience to rudeness, crumpling it all up and forcing it into a crack no larger than the thickness of a Bluenose dime, so your admission is as hard to crack as the combination on someone else’s safe — a safe you’ve then built a false wall in front of. Once, what could have been a love poem.

I lived in a different old house where every single piece of wood had a grease-pencil number written on it. Take down a sheet of heavy paper covering the boards on an inside wall, and each board was numbered sequentially, as if the house had been a huge version of a kit, or else as if it had been completely taken apart after its first construction, and then orderly rebuilt somewhere else.

That, at least, seemed practical.

The notes? The notes are more mysterious. Perhaps it’s as simple as being the most plentiful and available insulation. As being a quick place to write measurements so they wouldn’t be forgotten. As a habit that, once started, couldn’t be broken — the way my shed is full of awkward pieces of wood that might someday precisely fit a repair job I haven’t even thought of doing yet.

But another part of me wonders, is it a hex, this constant notation?

Does it do its part in holding the house up?

Is it a message? A whisper from the past? Is it the house’s way of remembering itself?

At first, I used to throw the messages away, after reading them as best I could. But I stopped throwing them away, because it seemed like I was messing with someone else’s order.

Now, something makes me imagine that the words are essential, and, once I’ve read them, I fold them up again and slide the papers back in place.

You never know what’s going to be important.

I’m a writer; I have to say I like the idea of a house kept whole with words.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 39 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.

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