Saturday, August 6, 2011

Open to a Book

My friend and colleague Melanie Snyder's latest "home improvement project" puts my recent painting endeavors to shame. Melanie's adventures were recently featured in the Lancaster Sunday News, and she was kind enough to share some of her story as a guest blogger here.

Photo: Blaine T. Snyder/
     Sunday News

Lisa's recent blog posts about balancing home improvement projects and writing have really resonated with me. Her feeling that she'd "binged on words and home improvement projects" captured exactly how I've been feeling. And her comparison of home improvement projects to childbirth made me laugh out loud.

You see, I too have been involved in a major home renovation project and a major writing project. But in my case the two are deeply intertwined.

Last November, my husband and I bought and moved into a circa 1915 rowhome in Lancaster that had been owned by a woman named Ruth. But it had been sitting unoccupied since 1989, when Ruth's mother had died.

Ruth had inherited and kept the place, which had been her childhood home. But she never moved into it. And it appeared she had left everything as it had been when her mother was alive.

When we went through the house for the first time last October, it was a time capsule. In the living room, stacks of books, letters, postcards and yellowed newspaper clippings sat on a bookshelf next to a green brocade chair with finely crocheted antimacassars on the arms. A "vertical grand" player piano made by Bjur Bros of New York, sat silent along one wall, with boxes of perforated paper music scrolls stacked beside it.

Fine china and crystal sparkled behind the glass-fronted china cabinet in the dining room. A lace tablecloth and a silk flower arrangement decorated the polished mahogany table. In the kitchen, a set of milk glass canisters in the floor-to-ceiling hutch still contained sugar, tea and flour. Pots and pans were stacked on top of the 1930's era Chambers gas stove.

Upstairs, bedroom closets overflowed with finely-tailored dresses and coats. Shoeboxes were stacked neatly on the closet floors, and hat boxes on the shelves above. Watches, rings, necklaces and tiny colored glass perfume bottles covered silver filigreed trays on the dressers.

The house also contained clues to Ruth's life: her pilot's log from when she learned to fly airplanes back in the 1950's lay on a wicker desk in one bedroom. Under the desk were several scrapbooks from her travels around the world. On the wall above the bed, a photo of her graduating class from Brenau Women's College in Georgia. A bookshelf held some of Ruth's college textbooks: zoology, French, physics, organic chemistry, quantitative analysis. Hanging in the 3rd floor hallway were two framed rifle targets (each pierced with a few bullet holes), Ruth's certification from the National Rifle Association as a "Certified Sharpshooter" and her amateur radio operator's license.

Ruth was born in 1925. For a woman of her era to have lived such a life seemed extraordinary.

Neighbors told us Ruth visited "Mama's house" several times a week, tending her mother's prized rosebuds out back and puttering around inside. What made her keep this house, though she didn't live here? Why had she left things intact rather than cleaning up and clearing out?

Something about this old place tugged at my husband and me. There was a spirit (or spirits?) here. But it was the green rocking chair pulled up next to the stove in the kitchen that captivated me the most. It looked like Ruth might have been sitting there, sipping a cup of tea, just before we arrived. I wanted to meet and talk with her. I wanted to hear stories about her life.

But it could never happen. Ruth had died in December 2009. We purchased "Mama's house" from her estate. Ruth had no children, and she had willed everything in "Mama's house" to the Salvation Army. I contacted them and asked whether they would give me the letters, photos and other relics from Ruth's life. They agreed, and in January of this year, a Salvation Army truck pulled up out front and they delivered ten huge containers of memorabilia.

Ever since, I've been cataloging the old relics of the fascinating life of this truly avant-garde woman. I've been sharing bits of Ruth's story through my blog as I've pieced it together, and am working on a book about her.

In between, we've been stripping wallpaper, painting, making repairs and supervising the small army of workmen doing the electrical re-wiring and plumbing and other stuff that's beyond our abilities.

So, like Lisa, I've been "binging on words and home renovation." It's been both fascinating and exhausting. And I wouldn't trade it for the world.

Postscript: This is the second time a book project has appeared out of nowhere for Melanie. Her first book, Grace Goes to Prison, about the life of another trailblazing woman was published in late 2009.


  1. WOW!! That is AMAZING! I thought stuff like that only happened in stories!

    What a treasure of a house you have stepped into. Most of us will never know the life a house has had before us, but you have bought a house with a history, and one you can know a bit of!

  2. Thanks, Heidi - yes, it has been quite an adventure....however, there has been some criticism of what I'm doing, delving into and writing about Ruth's now I'm in a real quandary. I've been posting some of the ups and downs of that on my blog. I'm hoping to come to some definitive conclusion this week after meetings with more of the people who knew Ruth. Stay tuned...
    Anyway - thanks for your kind words!