The Safe House

It will soon be three years since we moved into Tett House.

The first two were fraught with stress and unexpected challenges. Not only were we adjusting to a new home, new jobs, and new people in a new place, but things kept going wrong and the repairs were adding up. We were constantly on edge, waiting for the next unwelcome surprise. Early on, I realized that I had become afraid of the house I’d initially fallen in love with, and it took us a long time to feel safe and comfortable in our new lives.

But even the toughest times slowly make their way into the past. One by one, we tackled projects, and they were no longer major, urgent repairs, but little upgrades we wanted to do.

Last summer, with delight, I fitted out the screened in porch as a bright, fresh gathering space with rocking chairs, an alfresco dining table, and a vintage daybed, which I talked about in my last post.

I also picked a couple of new nightstands and bedside lamps. Little pieces, big impact!

We finally got around to cleaning out and painting the room we had earmarked for Trevor’s office.


During.

Colour: Beau Green by Benjamin Moore. I love the depth and contrast with the cinnamon-toned wood. The office isn’t quite finished yet, but at least it’s functional!

We wallpapered a feature wall in the Front Hall and loved it.

I even started painting the old grates, but this is still an ongoing project. The paint is fairly noxious and I can only do one or two at a time. What a difference, though!

My favourite thing this winter has been our brand new wood stove! Our propane furnace – which is also new – heats really well, but we wanted to cut down on fuel costs. Thanks to the removal of several large, dead trees on the property, we had a carriage house full of wood to burn, so there truly is no great loss without some small gain. Jim from Rideau Valley Hearth & Home installed a brand new Jøtul F500 for us and it’s a beauty.

I love that it looks as if it has been there, always. When you’re working with an old house, it’s so important to honour and not compromise the historical character. We try to find a balance between new and old.

We had to completely reconfigure our living room to accommodate the wood stove, but it was worth it! We’ve enjoyed many cozy nights around the fire this past winter.

We hosted a reunion of first cousins in September and a big family Thanksgiving dinner in October. Together with our improvement projects, these served to re-establish my original connection with the house, which has been growing stronger ever since. One day, I woke up realizing that Tett House had finally become my home and I didn’t need to be afraid of it anymore. I could embrace it, with open arms. I gave myself over to that feeling, and frankly, it’s the only place I ever really want to be now.

And it’s a good thing, too. Who could have foretold that the Spring of 2020 would bring with it a pandemic that meant we couldn’t leave our house even if we wanted to?

With the advent of the Coronavirus, the house I’d gotten used to fearing, suddenly became our safe place. Its aloofness and remote location made self-isolation easy, and we feel quite independent. We can go outside and wander our six acres of trees with no chance of encountering others or compromising anyone’s health, including our own.

Our family was at low-risk for COVID-19, but we sequestered ourselves in mid-March, willingly and gratefully. Since then, we’ve found solace and boundless inspiration in the beautiful natural landscape that surrounds us.


We miss our friends and family, but the deer enjoy the view, too, and have been keeping us company… while respecting social distancing recommendations, of course!

Life may have suddenly slowed down, and the Great Pause of the world is upon us, but every day at Tett House still brings something new: budding trees, flowers poking up out of the ground, and even snow! Trevor captured this bit of mid-April magic and made a short video out of it, just because he’s awesome that way.

I feel as if Tett House is rewarding us now, for all the blood, sweat, and tears we put into the property early on. This stately Victorian lady is taking us under her wing and offering shelter, a safe haven. Even when the news is scary and things are uncertain, we feel protected and comforted.

When we first moved in, I joked to Trevor about wanting the house to be a place where we could “survive a Zombie Apocalypse.”

Please don’t let there be any zombies!

To read the story of our move to Tett House from the beginning click here.



Summer at Tett House

It’s been quite a while since my last post (January 1st.)

At the time, I was feeling discouraged and overwhelmed and very blue… a deep, full-bodied azure, as a matter of fact. I didn’t feel much like writing.

I plugged away as gamely as I could through the grey, cheerless months of January, February, and March. There were multiple changes in our lives and many distractions – some positive, some not. The long, dark winter slowly, slowly seeped into a short, cold spring. I felt like I, and everyone around me, was desperate for some sunshine.

I don’t know if there’s anything better than summer in Eastern Ontario, with its scattering of lakes on the Rideau System, and majestic pines and wildflowers growing out of the bedrock of the Canadian Shield. Tett House sits perched on one of these imposing rocky cliffs, with water and trees on every side. Living here, I feel as if we are at the very heart of every season as it passes.

And summer is one of the best.

In summer, the lilacs come out,

and the deer visit.

The time for sunset bonfires and ‘smores begins,

and I start making homemade iced tea with fresh mint and lemon.

When the storm windows come off in late spring, and we open the French doors to the porch, Tett House comes alive.

When I fell in love with this place, I fell hard, and its large screened-in porch is largely responsible for that. That porch is what made me realize this was more than just a real estate crush… this was a long-term commitment territory.

When we first saw it, the porch was sort of a leftover postscript to the rest of the house, but it had a lot of potential. The previous owners left some boring, Golden Girls-style wicker out there and I wasn’t having any of it. I had a vision of something cozier and maybe kind of old-fashioned, but in the best sense. I wanted to create a space that you escape to with a book, or a glass of wine, where you gather with friends and listen to music.

When we first moved in, the porch became a place to put a few pieces of stray furniture. It was the only place of calm in our stormy move, when everything was in chaos. Our cat liked it, too.

Decorating the porch was a bit of a challenge because it’s not enclosed, only screened-in. This meant that any furniture we put out there had to be resilient and able to withstand changes in the weather. It also had to suit the age and style of the home… a modern “outdoor living room” set from Home Depot wasn’t going to cut it.

My first stroke of luck was acquiring a pair of vintage rocking chairs from a friend who was moving and could no longer use them. They were a little worn and a little chipped and they were exactly what I was looking for.

Next, I found the perfect round pedestal table online and some very affordable indoor/outdoor rattan chairs from IKEA.

It was really starting to come together, but I still didn’t have my pièce de résistance. I needed a cozy reading corner… someplace I could curl up with a good book or fall asleep on a lazy day. The final piece of the puzzle was equal parts Kijiji and thrift shop, where I picked up a secondhand daybed and handmade quilt and bedding, respectively.

The porch is my favourite room in the house, of course, although it’s not even really a room. It’s that magical place where you can be both inside and outside at the same time. It’s a place for dreaming, for reading, for dining, and – since the daybed was set up – for napping.

The floor is slanted to an alarming degree. Things get damp in there, when it rains. There are sometimes ants, and once I interrupted a snacking squirrel, but when the weather is fine, it’s the only place I want to be in the world.

To read the story of our move to Tett House from the beginning click here.

Finding Tett House, Part 3 – The Spirit of Adventure

It’s amazing how a holiday or change of scene can give you a new perspective. (This is probably why so many corporations are stingy about vacation time — too many of their employees would quit!)  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In spite of all the serendipity discovering the place (see Part 1 and Part 2) I’d made up my mind that Tett House could never be mine. Someone else would buy it and wreck it with bastardized “improvements,” or someone wouldn’t buy it, and it would crumble further and forgotten into obscurity. Neither fate exactly filled me with joy.

One day in the summer months of 2016, I searched for the real estate link, and it was gone. I assumed the house had been sold. I felt sad, and realized that I had still been holding on to some far-fetched dream that owning it might become a reality someday. But now, it seemed the home was irrevocably in the hands of others, so the best I could hope for was that they would treat it well.

In the meantime, Trevor & I were approaching our 10th wedding anniversary in the fall. We had been hoping to return to Scotland where we got married.

This was our wedding day at Dalhousie Castle in October, 2006. Look how cute we were!

Also, here is a completely gratuitous picture of my husband in a kilt. Because hot.

And one of me in my wedding dress, because I loved this dress, and yes, those are feathers.

Moving on…

Sadly, changes in finances had dashed our hopes and Scotland was now out of the question. We decided instead to visit the most beautiful old-world city in our own country – Vieux-Québec.

Aside from the odd weekend over the years to mostly local destinations, we had not been on a trip together since our honeymoon. Trevor had not even taken more than a day or two off in a row in almost 5 years. The strain was starting to show, and we both looked forward to our trip with excitement.

Our time in Old Quebec was beautiful and romantic. We were at liberty and leisure to explore the city on foot. We made no set plans, preferring instead to wander aimlessly, taking photographs, and making discoveries. There was no schedule. We ate when we got hungry, paused when we needed a rest, and shopped when we found something wonderful.

We weren’t just exploring the area, we were immersing ourselves in new sights and sounds, food and drink, art and beauty. Our boutique hotel had excellent service and delightful breakfasts. Outdoors, the leaves were changing, but the sun was warm. Delicious scents wafted out of the open doors and windows of restaurants and bakeries, inspiring us to a perpetual state of snackery. The clop-clop of horses gave me thrills of enchantment that were only satisfied when we took a carriage ride, and then promptly extinguished by the overpowering smell of manure (the horses poop in a bag!)

Our favourite day was spent on Île d’Orléans, picnicking on the shores of the St. Lawrence.

We were surrounded by art and architecture and nature and French culture, and we loved every second of it.

We let our imaginations and our senses run wild.

We didn’t fully realize it at the time, but by indulging our sense of adventure, our lives had crossed a new threshold. Once you rediscover your wings, you don’t fly back into the cage and allow somebody to clip them. We returned to our “regular” life and everything looked different. We realized how much we had been missing in the routine of our daily lives, how much we had turned away from what inspired us, in order to tackle the tedium of ever-increasing responsibilities and obligation.

Suddenly, we no longer felt compelled to maintain situations or relationships that had become imbalanced, burdensome, and stressful. Everything had changed. We didn’t know exactly what our next step was, but we were on the watch for it.

And then Tett House came back on the market.

(Read Part 4)

 

Finding Tett House – Part 2

2016 was a restless, restless winter. Change was in the air.

For years, our family had been living in a house and a neighbourhood we loved, in a city we didn’t. Although we talked about moving some day, we didn’t anticipate doing so for several years. Even then, we assumed we’d stay safe and secure in the GTA, where we’d been raised and lived our whole lives.

But the personal and professional dynamics in our lives were changing and could no longer be relied upon. At some point, our life/work balance had gone askew, leaving us increasingly frustrated and powerless. Trevor & I knew we needed to take back the direction of our future; I could feel the foundation of our lives shifting under our feet, but didn’t know yet where the momentum was going to take us. We talked a lot about how to build a life with more room for our passions and talents, as a better example for our son. We were redefining our goals as individuals and as a family.

Meanwhile, I had not forgotten the house I saw on-line, back in September. (See Part 1.)  It had come to represent a kind of touchstone for me. In February, I went back to the real estate listing and it was still active. I emailed it to Trevor again. I was already referring to it as “my” house.

After viewing the listing – again – Trevor wrote back to say he thought this house might be the same one that we saw on the hill back in November, across from the mill. I was taken aback at the suggestion. No way… it couldn’t be the same house. Could it?

A quick search (thank you, ye gods of Google) revealed that it was in fact the same house. It looked quite different from the front than it did from the back, especially at a distance.

What were the odds? Trevor & I had essentially both discovered the same property at the same time, but in completely different ways. I felt this was significant, but what did it all mean?

I decided I needed to visit the house, myself. I felt an attachment to it that I couldn’t explain. I thought if I could at least see it in person, one of two things might happen:

1)  The house would be so amazing, Trevor would immediately be persuaded to say, “Yes, my love, we must purchase this magnificent dwelling and move in forthwith,

or,

2)  I might gain satisfaction enough to let it go.

Not being a character in a Merchant-Ivory film, Trevor doesn’t use terms like, “magnificent dwelling,” or “forthwith,” so the second option was really the best that I could hope for.

I contacted the realtor, who agreed to take me through the house. She sent me information about the property:  it was called Tett House, it came with six acres, and together with Bedford Mills, was of local historic significance. Of course, this only made me love it more.

In March, I made the 3-1/2 hour drive out to Bedford Mills. Seeing the home in person was like a dream. Some attractive but superficial renovations had been done to the interior (new kitchen, new bathroom) but it was relatively raw and untouched – neglected almost. The owners at that time didn’t live on the property, so there were no appliances and little furniture. It was a lonely old place. I could feel its sadness. But also its potential.

The shingles were flaking off the roof. The floors were strong, but in rough shape. The doors were beautiful, cinnamon-stained wood, with incredible antique hardware, but a century of changing seasons had left them warped and sticking in their frames.

The house was filled with original, 19th century carpentry:  jam cupboards, shelves, and there was a walk-in linen closet upstairs in the servant’s quarters. Servant’s quarters!!  A “secret staircase” led from the kitchen to the second floor. How much had I always wanted a secret staircase? (Answer:  a lot.)

The fireplaces had gorgeous mantles, but were rusty and non-functioning.

The basement was creepy…  it had a fieldstone foundation and a dirt-floor with a tired oil furnace.

The original windows featured waves of rippled glass; they opened reluctantly, a number of the panes were cracked, and they were full of flies. Some of the rooms had been papered with ugly wallpaper that had begun to peel from the plaster walls, and in the main hallway, there was actually a hole in the floor from an old stovepipe.

A quick examination of the ungrounded outlets revealed the electrical work needed a huge overhaul. And although it was early spring by this time, the place was as cold as a barn. The realtor confirmed that the house had probably never been insulated.

It was daunting. I mean, I was daunted.

But…

The house satisfied something vital in me. For one thing, it was like something out of an LM Montgomery novel, which in itself was enough to attract me. The windows were large and bright, and each one provided a view of the water. And trees… in a house like this, I could finally have my fill of trees. My favourite feature was the screened-in porch at the side of the house, from which I could instantly see myself reading books and gazing out at the mill, listening to birds and the rustling of leaves, and that amazing little waterfall. The house and its surroundings were truly one.

My spirits fell, however. I knew it wasn’t going to happen. Trevor & I are not DIY people, nor did we have an unlimited budget to take on so many renovations and repairs. The house still needed too much work; it was rough and isolated and so fucking beautiful, and it was positively crying out for someone (me!) to love it. I thought my heart would break right there. Before leaving the property, I rang the bell again and said good-bye forever.

I went home and told Trevor all about it, and prepared to let it go. The universe had other plans.

(Read Part 3)

 

Finding Tett House – Part 1

It was the mill that first caught our eye. Well… Trevor’s eye.

It was August of 2015. I was sleeping in the car when we first drove by the mill on our way down to Kingston, because sleeping in the car is what I do. But Trevor, who is super thoughtful in this way, made a note to remember it as a place worth exploring in the future, and maybe taking a few good photographs.

We had been visiting friends and really enjoyed Kingston and its surrounding villages. Even though we had no plans to move at that time, I started randomly looking at houses in the area, purely out of curiosity. In September, I sent Trevor a link to the listing of a home I thought was incredible. This was the listing photo.

He replied that it was “very cute.” I thought it was one of the most gorgeous homes I’d ever seen in my life. Unfinished, yes. But gorgeous. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

You can still view the video tour here.

About 10 days later, I emailed him the link again, just because I get obsessed that way.

A couple of months later, we were in the area once more and Trevor said, “I want to show you something.” He drove us out to see the old mill he had first noticed back in August. It was in a little pocket of South Frontenac called “Bedford Mills,” with a few cabins, a quaint church, and not much else that we could see. At the foot of a tumbling waterfall, this steadfast, stone mill stood guard over a quiet pond, like something out of a gothic novel. Even in the stark greyness of a November afternoon, it was beautiful.

As the road cuts right through the property, we did not immediately realize the mill was a private residence (whoops.) We rambled and exclaimed and took pictures until our son Oliver sighed with ennui. Finally, we noticed a “Private Sale” sign that indicated the property was on the market, and I jotted down the email address.

Then we looked up.

High on the hill, across the water, was an old yellow house with a big old verandah, peering down between windswept pines. It was the kind of house I’ve wanted to live in all my life. I’m pretty sure it winked at me.

“Look at that house,” I said, pointing. “Imagine living there.” And in a heartbeat, I did imagine it. I considered what it would be like to look out the windows through those trees at the mill, and to hear the rush of that waterfall every single day. It was an intoxicating idea.

On a whim, we drove up the steep driveway to the house, which actually sits atop a craggy limestone cliff of Canadian Shield. It was vacant and even more charming up close. It also had an old carriage house and a bell on the property that rang with a satisfyingly loud gong.

A bell!  I was smitten.

We took some more photos, then went back to the car, and drove onward.

I had no idea this was the same house to which I had sent Trevor the link just eight weeks before.

(Read Part 2)