Keys to the kingdom

Among the meaningful and useful gifts I received for Christmas (or possibly my birthday—they’re two days apart so sometimes I forget) was this hanging key holder made for me by my dad. It’s a one-of-a-kind piece with a backstory, and I just love it.

The piano keys come from the piano once played by my grandmother, my mother’s mom. The upright grand piano, a magnificent musical instrument, was the centerpiece of the living room in my grandparent’s house in northwestern North Dakota. On days like today, when the wind is whipping subzero air across the Plains, you can imagine how folks back in the era before television might gather around the piano for indoor entertainment.

When my grandmother died, my mother got the piano. Dad built a trailer out of junk on my grandfather’s farm in order to transport the unbelievably heavy instrument from North Dakota to southern Minnesota, where we lived at the time. (The sound board of an upright grand hangs the piano strings vertically instead of horizontally like a grand piano does so the upright grand piano takes up a lot less space, but it’s still very heavy.) The piano survived the trip, and then another trip when my parents moved to Central Minnesota.

I, my sister and my little brother all learned to play piano on that instrument of my grandmother’s. Even now, I can imagine how the strips of ivory covering the white keys felt beneath my fingertips when I played Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre or piano arrangements of Beatles tunes.

We grew up and moved out, and Mom and Dad no longer needed nor wanted a piano. I was married to a musician at the time, so I took it. My ex and I moved it twice, and when we parted ways, I kept the piano. Being a little, shall we say, unmoored at the time, I asked my sister to keep it for me at her house, which she obliged for a decade. My nephews played it a bit, but it stood mostly as a testiment to my grandmother and an enormous artifact of the childhoods of my sister and me.

Eventually, my sister decided she could no longer store it for me. Tyler and I were living in a camper at the time, so we couldn’t take it. During one of its moves, the sound board cracked so piano tuners could no longer find a true A, or whatever note the tune to. Browsing Craig’s List, it was apparent pianos like Grandma’s couldn’t be given away.

So we demolished it.

We kept the good parts and threw the rest away (kind of like we would later do with the church).

We retrieved some of the parts at some point last year, but my sister squirreled away some of the piano keys, which she turned over to Dad who made them into a beautiful and functional display. I was thrilled when I opened it at Christmas.

Tyler mounted it on the wall by the back door in the church. I smile inside every time I hang my keys there (and every time I know where to find my keys on the way out the door). It’s a great gift, and it found the perfect place in Church Sweet Home.

By the way, my keys? My keychain, the one I carry around everywhere I go, is the one that came with the church. It’s a cheap plastic one that says “Loaves and Fishes,” the name of the food pantry that was housed in the church before we purchased it. All the keys that came with it are obsolete because we changed the locks. But the fob has history. It belongs to the church. Just like the piano keys have history. And now they belong to the church, too.

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A little bit of heaven sent down to earth

Our story so far: A doorway in our lives closed when our beloved miniature schnauzer died in the midst of our church renovation project. But God was on duty. A window opened.

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Our granddaughter was born. She was a week overdue, but she arrived late one afternoon in a swirl of snowflakes like Elsa from “Frozen.” She was perfect. We became frequent guests at the nearby house of my stepdaughter and son-in-law where they were as obsessed with burp rags and diapers as we were with two-by-fours and floor plans. Nearly every day, our phones would light up with an adorable pink-punctuated picture. Our granddaughter was a beautiful distraction from the gap created by the dog’s demise and from the overwhelming amount of work represented by the church. As any parent or grandparent knows, it’s hard to think about much else when one is holding a crying or contented baby—she simply demands all your attention.

About a month later, a neighbor and former member of the church who had already gifted me with a number of photos and an old box of Christmas cards picturing the church, called me over to her house. “I have something for you,” she said when I arrived.

red chair
Tiny chair. A gift.

She handed me a tiny wooden chair.

“These used to be the Sunday school chairs in the area in the church you’re turning into your bedroom,” she said. “I have vivid memories of these chairs in a circle in that room.”

The Sunday school room, of course, was the room where we were removing the doorway, the one where there once was a row of coat hooks. And my benefactor knew very well her gift would someday soon be the perfect sized seat in the church for my new granddaughter.

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Tomorrow: Chapter 20 opens. Showers, as it turns out, are expensive. Read about it here.

Stewards of memory

Our story so far: Our purchase of the old Methodist church to turn into our home created a buzz around town.

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“Old houses,” author Gladys Tabor once wrote, “do not belong to people ever, not really; people belong to them.” The old Methodist church had been a cultural center in our little village for more than a century. It had been such a long-time mainstay that members who were baptized there had gotten married there, and their funeral service had been held there when they died.

basement before demo
Many church potlucks were probably served in the basement kitchen. Here’s how it looked when we purchased the church, before demo.

Every room in the old church belonged to people from all over the region. Families were formed when couples married beneath those rafters and baptized the children they raised together. Performers found an audience and worshipped God singing in the choir loft. The seeds of faith found soil when little children learned about Jesus in the Sunday school rooms. Women earned reputations for their seven-layer salad and pie crust in the basement kitchen where many meals had been served and fellowship enjoyed. Unlike most homes—even long-standing ones—that possessed the memories of a few families, ours carried with it the feelings of generations of people.

We owned the building now, but we were only stewards of the memories the place held. I felt responsible for honoring those who came before us, and both Tyler and I wanted to be true to at least some elements of the historical architecture even as we transformed what had been a church into a family home.

To a person, everyone who chatted with us about our project was complimentary and supportive. If a former church member was upset that we were changing the building into a private home, they didn’t share that disappointment with us.

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Tomorrow: A correction and a story of discovery. Read about it here.

‘What can I say? I’m sorry. See ya next time’

Our story so far: My husband Tyler and I discovered jewels and junk in the demolition phase of converting our old Methodist church into a house.

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One of the final places we demolished was the area beneath the entryway steps.

Based on old photos we found, we determined the steps were not original to the church. The original entry was beneath the belfry; the current entry had been constructed in the early 1940s.

Leading to the opening beneath the carpeted wood steps, a cupboard door of sorts without a knob had been sealed with foam and painted over (maybe more than once). In other hiding places in the church, we’d found old Christmas decorations (disappointing) and a plethora of old doors (thrilling!), so Tyler and I were curious what might be hidden under the steps.

He chipped away at the trim around the door, discarding pieces in all directions. “I feel like Geraldo Rivera!” he said, and I giggled.

Readers of a certain age may remember Rivera, who hosted a 1986 special on The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults during which he spent an hour hyping the potential discoveries of a secret vault beneath the Lexington Hotel in Chicago. When the vault was finally opened on live TV, the only things found inside were dirt and several empty bottles. [Rivera’s last words of the episode are the title of this post.]

beneath the stairs
Ta-da!

Like Rivera, our discovery was disappointing. The members of the church had left behind only a pile of scrap wood and a Bible comic book from 1962. The best thing, in fact, was the cupboard door: Solid beadboard.

beadboard cupboard
The back of the vault door was the best part.

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Tomorrow: Chapter 11 concludes with a look at what we accomplished during demo. Read it here.

Homegrown chicken makes for a memorable feast

Our story so far: My husband Tyler intends to draw on his previous experience in the early 1990s transforming an old house on a tobacco farm as he faces the renovation of a 126-year-old Methodist church into our dream home.

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When Tyler acquired the property, the first step was emptying the place of the decades of cigarette rolling papers and other assorted junk accumulated by two old bachelors. The unfinished half-story had two old iron beds with four-inch thick mattresses. Tables on each side of the bed were piled high with identical clothing for the brothers: Bib overalls, stained V-neck T-shirts and union suits in varying degrees of being worn out. Behind the tobacco barn, near a plow and disc (put into use in their time by mules) stood a stack of aluminum pie tins as tall and as wide Tyler.

“There must have been more than a thousand,” Tyler mused when he told me about his project. Here his story deviated a bit from renovation concerns to memories of this property.

“Back there was a stump, too, the brothers used for butchering chickens,” he recalled. “I did, too. There was a broad-head axe hanging in the tobacco barn that I still have, and I used it to cut the heads off the chickens I grew in the yard. My grandma Blair helped me. I chopped the heads off, dipped them in a caldron of boiling water, and Grandma did the feathers. I can still see her there in a lawn chair plucking feathers.”

“Did they taste good, those chickens?” I asked, thinking of a book I’d read recently about how free-range chickens in decades past have so much more flavor than mass-market chicken breasts of today.

“They were the best chickens I’ve ever eaten,” he remembered.

Tylers first reno
Tyler at work on his first reno, circa 1992.

Tyler returned to remembering his renovation experience and the difficult physical labor required to pull off such an undertaking. After cleaning up the property, he knocked all the horsehair plaster and lathe off the walls of the farmhouse, installed 100-amp electrical service and wired the whole house. Tyler had taken vocational classes on electrical and picked up real-world experience by wiring rental housing and cabins with his grandfather. He installed a high-tech (at the time) Swedish wood stove outside and ran HVAC channels to heat the entire house.

Then he ran PVC pipe throughout the structure in order to bring running water (from a new well) inside to the kitchen, two bathrooms and a second-floor laundry. As the days turned into weeks, he put in his own septic system. The neighbor dug the trenches with a backhoe, Tyler laid the pipe and rock, and a guy came out to set the tank.

The septic system passed inspection. The plumbing passed inspection. The electrical passed inspection. Now it was habitable.

The basement was another phase. Years before, his parents figured out a masterful method for keeping the teen-aged Tyler busy: He dug out their entire basement by hand. So he put that experience to good use by digging out the tobacco farmhouse basement the same way, moving out the dirt with a little elevator into the back of a pickup truck. Once it was deep enough to stand up in, he poured a cement floor.

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Tomorrow: Tyler’s first whole-house renovation comes to a surprising and possibly ironic conclusion. Read it here.