Falling To Rust And Ruin
By James Donahue
Years ago I put to memory the last verse in Oliver Wendell Holmes’ wonderful poem The Chambered
Nautilus. It reads:
"Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!"
Holmes of course was using the mollusk, which hides in the shells along the shores of the world’s
oceans, as the subject of his poem. But he uses the analogy as a lesson for humanity to spend our lives constantly building
for a brighter and finer future.
In a strange way, my late wife Doris and I lived a life that somewhat paralleled the nautilus in the
Holmes work. Perhaps because of my love for old things, and because we never chose to invest heavily in new and finished homes,
we took to buying older houses in need of repair and improvement. I made a hobby of buying older "fixer-uppers," learning
carpentry, plumbing, electrical work and roofing, and we spent most of our lives living in homes under construction.
The first houses we did were learning experiences. But after a while, we began getting very good at
what we were doing. We stripped the old places of the wiring and plumbing and replaced that before moving on to installing
new walls, floors, bathrooms, kitchens and windows. Those were the days when you could invest in a restoration, sell the house
and make a few dollars in the process.
The idea caught on as the nation’s economy changed and more and more young married couples discovered
that what we were doing was the less costly way to go. When we lived in an older neighborhood in one Michigan town, we noted
that similar restoration projects were going on in two other houses just on our block alone. It did not take long before the
cost of building materials began to skyrocket. At the same time, states, counties and cities started passing stricter building
codes that made it harder for people to get the work done without hiring licensed electricians, plumbers and carpenters. The
crunch was on.
The last homes we did were finished at much higher cost. I was familiar with the building codes and
was confident that my work was up to standard so I managed to still do my own work
Our labor did not escape the critical eye of the township and county zoning inspectors, who were under
pressure to raise government tax revenues. As our once dilapidated houses began to show improvements, especially on the outside,
we noticed that our property taxes were going up. Thus we began concentrating our work on the inside, with outside work completed
just before our homes went on the market for sale.
It became a constant effort to stay one step ahead of the government just to maintain a comfortable
middle-class life style. The wolves were closing in and we knew it would just be a matter of time before our love of restoring
old houses would grind to an end.
The last two houses we did were done with the thought that they would be our final and retirement
homes, so we poured good money into them. And as our situation in life changed, forcing us to once again sell and move on,
we sold our homes for less than our investments.
But by this time in our lives, the "chamber" we chose for our home was becoming finer and finer. We
bought things like central heating and cooling, range stoves and ovens, and triple-pane windows. We were, literally, letting
"each new temple" become "nobler than the last."
But in the course of doing all of these things, we discovered that we were aging. Our bodies were
wearing down. And while we were pleased to know that we had saved many fine older homes from the wrecking ball, the work we
did also was aging. Roof shingles were leaking. Painted walls were starting to peel. Flooring was wearing. The fine new appliances
we put in these houses were wearing out and in need of repair or replacement.
In other words, the material things we loved were not what Holmes was writing about in his poem. Everything
on this earth is designed to rust and rot. Nothing lasts forever, especially the wonderful bodies we enjoyed in our youth,
and the lives we were allowed to enjoy for those few short years.
Our fight now is against the aging of our bodies and the old house I am now forced to occupy. My loving
wife preceded me in death. As my own health begins to fail, and I watch the deterioration of the 150-year-old house I live
in build, I wonder if it will be the house or me that goes first.
But I now understand that final line in the Holmes poem.