The past is constantly revealing itself, but these glimpses are fragmented. We then try to assemble these fragments in some sort of linear order so that they will make sense to us. It’s more than nostalgia; it’s a quest on our part to understand what has come before, and why. For example, my most memorable part of the film “Gangs of New York” isn’t Daniel Day Lewis’s role, but the closing time-lapse sequence that depicts the subsequent 150 years in New York’s history. Set in a Brooklyn cemetery, we see Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge rise before us, and it essentially gives us a chance to step back at any point in the city’s past.
I’ve been thinking about this as I work on remodeling the guest room in my house. For the past 18 years, I’ve been involved in some way with the place, sometimes as a friend of the residents, a contractor, or the eventual homeowner. As I contribute to the house’s history, I make a note of what’s transpired during my tenure. I knew the young woman who owned the house in 1991; she was going to college here in town, and her father bought it for her as an investment in lieu of paying for a dormitory room.
Her boyfriend, who eventually became her fiancé, was an electronic musician and the producer of my band. After painting the walls of this second floor room a medium-dark gray with a bluish cast, he set up all of his gear up in a circle and spent his days composing dark, industrial music. It was a tiny space, barely nine feet square, and there were two windows, which he draped with heavy fabric to cut down on the noise transmission to the outdoors. The closet, which was 18″ deep and about four feet wide, was fairly useless as a proper clothes-closet, and served as a catchall for cords and microphones.
The student and her musician eventually went their separate ways, so she rented the house out to some other musicians, who were also friends of mine. During their tenancy, this little room housed a television and a couple of odd chairs, as it was too small for anything but a twin bed, and not needed as a sleeping chamber.
Then, the sister of one of the musicians moved into the house; a recently single mother with four small children, this became her daughter’s room. She painted the walls apple green, and the ceiling, sunny yellow. She made a box cornice over the bed from some Eastlake dresser-drawer faces she found at a tag sale and stenciled flowers on them, embellishing these with yellow tulle to serve as a canopy. The girl spent her preadolescence here, developing friendships with other girls, plodding through classes and first loves and all the other things most girls do before high school, at which point she moved up to a larger room on the third floor.
Then, the woman’s youngest son took it over. He was in middle school and liked his music peppered with angry guitars. For him, the room was painted black, including the ceiling, and a black carpet was laid. The walls were ornamented with red and white skateboard paraphernalia, all of which seemed to be adorned with skulls or flames or flaming skulls. The budding Goth also moved on to a bigger room when it became available.
And now, I am remaking the room as I prefer; a respite for frequent guests. It offers a fair amount of privacy from the rest of the house, but its size was too cramped for a full-sized bed. I looked at the closet; it wasn’t a load-bearing wall, which meant that removing it would yield another two feet of floor space; so down it came. Just a week ago, the Bradbury and Bradbury wall and ceiling papers went up, and the remnants of a William Morris carpet I had woven for a client in San Francisco were installed. I cleaned all the skater stickers off the door, replaced the missing baseboard and applied a fresh coat of orange shellac to all of the woodwork.
I can’t say that it looks like it did when the house was built in 1917, for it’s a bit of a fantasy: the décor is decidedly late Aesthetic Movement, which will confound the hell out of whoever owns this place in 50 years. But I’m deluding myself by thinking that whatever I did last week was permanent. Soon, perhaps too soon, it will again be a different child’s bedroom, or a den, or a practice space. The Morris paper, like the generations of black, gray and green paint, will be a memory only to me.