A window into the past

I never really gave the window sill much thought, chalking it up to one of those idiosyncrasies of an old house, like lumpy floors and crooked doorways. The color of a bright school bus, the frame around the window in our back bathroom had somehow escaped the wrath of our remodeling mission.

Although we could find no particular rhyme or reason for it, we liked the way it fairly lit up the room, making it seem as if the light was on when it wasn’t, so we kept it. Besides, with a house that old, there are bigger problems to worry about – like roofs, siding and floors.

When we bought the house 2 years ago, it was the typical fixer-upper, with a clouded past and various alterations added over the years. Upon moving in, all we had was a short-term history: remodeled sometime in the early ’90s; had served as a college flop house ever since. One thing we did know – it was in dire need of a thorough gutting. But, as we ripped away at walls, floors and cabinets, we had no idea that we would uncover more than the home’s bare bones – we would get a glimpse into its soul.

Over the years, we had various people stop by, giving us their recollections of the house. It was in this way that we gradually pieced together a rough sketch of the home’s structural history: it was built in 1917; the back door was once the front door; the office, master bedroom and mud room were all new additions; the former upstairs consisted of one large room and a bathroom; the kitchen sink with built-in drainboards had been around for decades; and somewhere deep beneath the subfloor were original hardwood floors, warped beyond salvation by years of settling.

But it was details of the house’s original occupants that had remained the unknown – until last weekend. It was only 5 o’clock on Saturday, but already dark when we heard a knock at the front door. It was more of an informal, courtesy knock, seeing as how the door was half open. We had been going in and out all day between the miter saw, which was outside, and the flooring project we had undertaken inside.

The visitor poked his head in and introduced himself. Trujillo was the name. He was passing by and couldn’t help but notice the proliferation of power tools and construction debris littering the front yard. Wanted to see what we had done with the old place. His grandmother had lived – and died at the ripe age of 106 – in the house, where he had taken care of her in her old age.

He asked if he could take a look around, and I obliged – grateful that I had the forethought that morning to pull the covers over the bed. When he finished his self-guided tour, he returned with his memories of the house and his grandmother. She spent her time sewing on an antique Singer, the kind built into its own table; working in her garden; and tending to the numerous outdoor cats that seemed to congregate around the house.

“I don’t know what she was feeding them, but it must have been something good,” he said.

And although most signs of her were all but gone – her bedroom was now a sunroom and the cats had all moved on – there was one lasting reminder: a small swatch of bright yellow-orange paint on the back window sill.
“She loved that color,” he told us. “Everyone knew her house.”

Apparently, when the old woman passed away, most signs of her went with – including the paint job. Her children were hasty in ridding the home of her belongings, the grandson said. Being an underling, he watched silently as her entire life was thrown into the dumpster. However, he did manage to sneak back to reclaim a few precious items, which proved in the end to have far more than sentimental value.

The first salvaged item was a set of floral throw pillows. When he removed the covers to wash them, he found $5,000 tightly rolled up in a rubber band amid the stuffing. The second item, an old trunk, revealed a hidden compartment where she had stashed piles of $20 bills. They had been there so long, they were disintegrating into dust by the time he found them, he said.

And this may very well have been only the beginning, he added.

“She was always digging in the yard, but we don’t know what she was doing out there,” he said, suggesting that we get a Rototiller and see if we, too, can dig up part of old Mrs. Trujillo’s treasure.

Of course, as we bid adieu, I realized much of what he said was meant to be taken with a grain of salt. And treasure or no treasure, no amount of money in the world was going to get me to rip up the front yard, which I had painstakingly transformed from an eyesore to a botanical work in progress.

Besides, the lore of old lady Trujillo was riches enough. The way I see it, her secrets should remain buried, revealing themselves when fate dictates. In the meantime, I am content letting myself believe she is somehow responsible for my bumper tomato crop, perhaps tending to it from the afterlife. Maybe she also has a hand in the constant and inexplicable battle with burned-out light bulbs, using it as a way to send us signs from the great beyond.

And although the neighborhood has changed since Mrs. Trujillo tilled the soil below the sunny orange eaves of her modest home, there will always be that lasting reminder of her, tucked away at the back of the house – a memento that is far more than a coincidence. And who knows, maybe one day, when we get around to tackling the exterior, the bright yellow-orange once again will fly proud.

-Missy Votel




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