- 9th Annual Young Alumni Essay Contest
- Schaal Prize: “Letting It All Be True," Mary Kate O'Leary '20
- Honorable Mention: “The Road Taken," Sara Felsenstein '12
- Honorable Mention: “The Storage Closet," Allie Griffith '17, '19M.Ed.
- Honorable Mention: “Chocolate Lessons," Andrew Robinson '17
- Honorable Mention: “A Day in the Life of a Millennial Homeowner,” Taylor Sheppard ’12
- Honorable Mention: “Invisible Motherhood,” Becky Wagner ’15
- Honorable Mention: “It’s Not Too Bad, Man,” Dylan Walter ’13
I just bought a house. I hadn’t really planned to buy a house, it just sort of happened. One minute I was evaluating the off-street parking situation for yet another apartment rental, and the next I found myself standing in the bright sunroom of a 1920s bungalow admiring the original hardwood floors as my realtor called out from the backyard: “I think you have a lemon tree growing out here.”
It turned out to be an orange tree, which I discovered only after the citrus changed color a few months later, but it sold me nonetheless. Set between a weeping willow in the front and an oak tree in the back, adorned with etched crown molding on every frame, and brightened by surrounding French windows, the house left me in awe.
And that was that, the most spontaneous decision I’ve probably ever made. This 100-year-old hidden gem in the historic district of Jacksonville, Florida, became mine. Yes, 100 years is considered “historic” in northern Florida, and yes, my Scottish best friend whose family lives in a 12th-century London townhome laughed at me when I told him this.
Now I’m having my own personal adventure taking care of the house. It took me three weeks to clean up the overgrowth in the backyard, during which I decided not only that my Apple Watch should have a workout loaded in its fitness app specifically for “yardwork” but also that I would never again go arms-first into a leaf pile because Florida, turns out, is famous for snakes.
Then there was the time I got trapped under the crawl space when a pile of broken concrete I had cleared out from under the house and stacked neatly at the entrance fell at the opening and blocked me in. This time my Apple Watch actually came in handy; I walkie-talkied my mom to come rescue me.
Most recently, after countless icy showers, I figured out that if I turn on the bathroom sink exactly one minute before I start the shower, hot water will keep flowing through the plumbing lines to the bathroom (and I can thoroughly wash my hair). I’m basically living out my very own plotline of the movie Under the Tuscan Sun, in which Diane Lane’s character also buys an old house and experiences the trials and tribulations of restoring it to its original charm. Except my story involves a lot less homemade Italian food. And probably more wine.
I’ve gotten in the habit of keeping a chore list. It started as a notepad on the fridge but quickly outgrew the number of magnets I have. Now my house to-do list lives in its very own composition notebook.
This week’s task is hanging curtains. Should be easy, for anyone who is good with a drill. I’m not one of those people. My attempt to hang a mirror in the guest bedroom is summarized by the following lessons learned, in order: 1) I have plaster walls, and they are very different than drywall; 2) nails don’t work well in plaster walls; 3) if you try to drill a hole in your plaster wall and are inexplicably unsuccessful at drilling said hole, nails still won’t work and will probably get stuck; 4) special tools are required for removing stuck nails; 5) if a drill is not working properly, check the drill settings; 6) drills can operate in the reverse direction; and 7) if a drill is operating in the reverse direction, it will not go into the wall.
So, I check that my drill is operating in the correct direction and start with the bedroom windows. My neighbors have more outdoor Edison lights strung across their yard than the display section at Home Depot. Their setup would be the envy of any Instagrammable-home enthusiast, but it’s less conducive for sleeping when your window has a front row seat to the light show.
I take my time and measure everything. Because the house has settled over the years, the floor and the ceiling are not perfectly parallel. Even more challenging: the window frame which I’m trying to dress isn’t parallel with either the floor or the ceiling. No matter — I can create an optical illusion with some fine adjustments so that everything looks straight (thank you mathematics degree). It takes me an hour to get the measurements right and my first drill is successful (finally, improvement on home improvement). I mount the bracket and move to the other side of the window, halfway done. A few more measurements and now it’s time to put drill to wall.
Turn drill on, press to wall, watch bit go in, watch bit stop at ½”. This is definitely not enough. Try again, same result. I check the stud finder — all is clear. Curious, I move to a different area on the wall and drill again. Same attempt, same failure. What is going on? I grab a flashlight, inspect the hole and discover what looks like a metal plate. Fast forward another hour, multiple more holes and adjusted stud finder settings, and I discover that the entire side of the wall from the window frame to the corner is backed by a metal plate. I don’t think I’m qualified to handle this, so I spackle up the holes and give up in the bedroom for now. The lonely bracket on the left side and the pink spackle covering a solid percentage on the right side mock me.
I move into the sunroom the next day, feeling more confident. The same sunroom that sold me the house is in desperate need of some window dressing. Mostly because this sunroom gets its own temperature scale during the Floridian summer. But also because it wraps around the entire front of the house, so my activities are always on display for the rest of the street. While I’m excited to meet my neighbors, I’d rather they not know how many bowls of Cheerios I eat in the morning.
I pick an easy spot to start with. No electrical wiring, no metal plates and my drill is in the correct direction. But when I drill into the wall, the whole area shakes and I hear a crackling sound. I reverse the drill (on purpose this time) and shreds of yellow particles stick to the bit. Yellow shavings fall out of the hole and a sharp odor reaches my nose. With interested carefulness, I pick at the yellow shreds and inspect them. I have no clue what they are. Once again frustrated that I have no luck with drills, I start sweeping up the mess. I’m one dustpan full when I remember that my house is old, and asbestos is very much a thing in old houses. Cue a freak out for the next six hours.
My spiral includes Googling everything from the history of asbestos in northern Florida to which cleaning agents you should sanitize with if you’ve been exposed. I call my parents, my boss, my ex-boyfriend and my realtor (to name a few). I schedule an emergent environmental home inspection for the next day. I tape up the wall and sanitize anything that touched the yellow crumbs. I even throw away my broom, which, surprisingly, was a hard thing to part with.
My dad comes over first thing in the morning. He removes the tape and inspects the wall. Grabbing his drill, the same drill I borrowed weeks ago and have unsuccessfully tried to decorate with, he effortlessly drills a hole in the wall. I stare at him. “It’s old wood” he says. “The cracking sound was the wood being disturbed and the smell is the burning of the wood when the drill hits it. It’s yellow because of the timber in the frame. You don’t have asbestos.”
I stand still as I watch him hang all the curtain rods in the sunroom, fix the curtain rod in the bedroom and leave in under an hour with a couple of oranges he picked off the tree out back. As he goes, he instructs me to fertilize the citrus tree. Apparently, I’m supposed to be watering it weekly. I honestly didn’t know you had to water trees.
That afternoon, I cross off “hang curtains” on the house to-do list in the notebook. I add two more items: 1) Water tree and 2) Buy a new broom.
Taylor Sheppard’s essay received an honorable mention in this magazine’s 2021 Young Alumni Essay Contest. A U.S. Navy submarine officer, she lives in Jacksonville, Florida, and is currently serving as the Engineer Officer onboard the USS Florida.