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A Down-On-Her-Luck Neighbor Finally Gets Her Due

Robert Chipkin

When I get the urge to watch the PBS home renovation series, “This Old House,” I don't bother to turn on the TV. I just look out my window.

There through the sagging porch and the gap-toothed wooden fence, I can see the stirrings of rebirth.

Nearly 40 years ago, when my wife and I arrived in Springfield, the 19th-century house with its majestic turrets was the grand dame of the neighborhood.

It overlooked a small park and flower beds shared by six neighbors, including us. It was clear that the owner of the house was also the park's proprietress, who informed me of the park rules: No ball playing; no flower picking; and, much to the children's dismay, hands off the underground spigot that controlled the fountain.

We all knew she meant business. Through the years, she stood guard over the neighborhood with an iron fist and an evil eye as she maintained her own house with all the dignity her small pension allowed. 

Until time caught up with both of them.

The succession of owners over the next two decades were well-intentioned, but under-financed to keep up with the years of cracking paint and rotting wood that greeted them.

When the last one decamped after a period of personal misfortune too painful to describe, what was left of the grand old lady was a laundry list of maintenance that would make an inspector gasp and a Greek chorus of neighbors lament that the one-time princess of the neighborhood was now virtually unsellable.

And so, like a sleeping former beauty with a for-sale sign dangling on the front lawn, she dozed through the real estate seasons, drawing only occasional notice from suitors lured by her charms, but quickly rebuffed by the staggering costs that dwarfed her awakening.

Then, as in so many fairy tales in search of a happy ending, came our neighborhood Prince Charming. He was fresh from a far-off land to the east, where a real estate sale could generate the kind of equity that would make conceivable the dream of restoring a down-on-her luck Victorian.

Now I can see the house practically molting as crews of high-ho-ing workmen fill the Dumpster in the driveway with the wood, shingles, tar paper and other remnants of nearly 20 years of neglect.

Never has so much destruction sounded so good. The porch still sags, the roof still leaks and the house screams, paint me.

But hope has arrived. This old house is becoming this new old house — a happy ending wrapped in a new beginning.

Robert Chipkin lives and writes in Springfield, Massachusetts.

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