Mrs. Cella Builds Her Dream House or Okay, So I’m Not Mr. Green Jeans


Jamie and I bought our 1929 Dutch colonial farmhouse in 1994, just before I graduated from NYU with a Masters degree in British Literature. We had to buy a house; there were so many chairs in our apartment it looked like the back room of Christie’s the week before a nineteenth century English furniture auction.

We approached the home-buying endeavor the way you would expect two city kids who had watched This Old House would do . . . with no sense of reality. No problem was too large to overcome, no repair too great to be considered. As our friend, Joseph Verlezza commented wryly, “You two are going to end up with a half-million dollar Handyman’s Special.” I chewed my thumbnail and considered his remark; I hoped not since Jamie wasn’t handy. In fact, when it came to domestic chores, he was damned near useless.

While Joseph wasn’t exactly right, neither was he completely wrong. Elements of the house we chose were beautiful – hand-leaded window panes inside and out, including in the garage windows; hand-laid chestnut floors; two acres with a pond, fruit trees, and a two hundred year old oak tree shading the roof – and it was these that prompted Jamie to bid before we had ever seen the interior.

I poked him as he leaned over the trunk of the real estate man’s Rolls to sign the paperwork. “What if the inside is horrible?” I hissed. He shrugged. “We’ll gut it,” he replied as though I should have known that without asking.

After our January closing, we grasped the keys in our sweaty palms and, pushing open the solid oak door, we finally noticed that his flippant remark might prove prescient and Joseph may have been more correct than he knew. There were lots of awful things inside our outwardly charming house. Parts of it looked as if the original owners had lost interest in maintenance around 1968. The living room walls were covered in green flocked wallpaper. At least it had been green flocked at some point; now it was mostly fleur-di-lis shaped dust bunnies that matched the ones created by the rapidly decomposing sage-colored carpet. The dining room contained three doorways, leaving what little wall-space there was papered in Wedgewood blue dotted with gold metallic birds in trees. Sadly, the woodwork was painted to match.

The impressive curved staircase had a huge Palladian window on the landing but we hadn’t noticed it because it was smothered by graying sheers, heavy green and white brocade thermal drapes, and a massive wooden valance. And the bathrooms . . . oh, the bathrooms. The one on the first floor was completely mint green, tile, fixtures, floor, ceiling – and none of them the same mint green – but that one could have been a contender for an award from House Beautiful when compared to the one upstairs. The second had the same styling (all one color with no identical shades) only it was pink from floor to ceiling. Enclosing the tub was a shower door with a swan etched into the glass. I called Jamie and pointed to the door. “This has to go.”

He stifled a grin. “I thought you liked swans.”

“I do like them in the pond. This is ugly.”

Eventually we did as Jamie had predicted and gutted most of the house. A series of dumpsters entered and left our driveway over the next year as the wallpaper and carpet exited in strips and the painters and floor refinishers trundled in laden with supplies. We ordered Raymond Enkeboll crown molding in the oak leaf and acorn design for the living room and in egg and dart for the dining room and entry hall. We closed some walls and broke through other ones. A specialty company covered the dining room walls in buttery yellow Italian cotton.

While the interior was undergoing its transformation by experts, I began digging in the garden. Some daffodils peered out at the chilly spring weather and fat, glossy leaves unfurled on ancient peonies. Every day a few other things poked their stems hopefully through the soil.

Attached to the back of the house was a cold frame so I bought some seeds and, after planting them in peat pots, placed them inside. Spears of something red were coming up in the bed around it, so I mixed some Miracle-Gro with water and fed them along with everything else reaching for the sun.

One afternoon Joseph, a florist, visited to help me with the garden. Catching sight of the now robust and green spears by the cold frame, he mumbled, “Dear God!” under his breath.

“What?” I asked swiveling my head.

“That!” he pointed. “It’s huge.”

“I know.” I beamed.

“I have never seen it so big before.”

“I have been feeding it,” I answered proudly.

It was Joseph’s turn to snap his head back to stare at me. “Why?” he cried.

“So it’s big,” I replied lamely. “What is it, anyway? It looks like some kind of bamboo. Will it get flowers?”

“It’s a weed!” Joseph shouted. “It’s a noxious weed! It broke through the poured concrete floor of the garage in my weekend house in Hastings-on-Hudson.”

“What?” It was my turn to shriek. “It’s a weed? Why would a weed be growing so close to the house?”

“I don’t think it knew that was where it was coming up but we need to dig it out before it breaks through your foundation!”

Grabbing spades we began digging in the soft soil. After four hours had passed and we had dug down about three feet for the entire length of the house I collapsed next to the trench and wailed. We were still nowhere near the bottom of the plant.

“Joseph!” I howled. “Where is the root cap on this thing?”

Joseph wiped his hand across his forehead and peered into the trench. “Melbourne?” he suggested.

“I cannot do any more,” I whined pitifully. “Let’s just pour bleach on it and bury it. Maybe it’ll die.”

“I doubt it. It’ll probably get bigger. It’s relentless.”

After breaking off all that we could and sprinkling the remains with Clorox, we buried it. I would’ve given it the Last Rites but I suspected it wasn’t really dead.

I was right; it has been twenty-two years and descendants of my bumper crop of Relentless Weed continue to snoop stealthily through the soil every year. And every year I try to dig it out but I dig less and give up sooner. It’s gonna outlive me.

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