Here Having Been There: Sarah Johnson ’13 calls boarding house her home
My house makes a pretty great home. It was a boarding house run by nuns sometime in the 19th century, and it sits in the woods in the out-of-the-way neighborhood of Lanesville in Gloucester, Mass.
My dad’s side of the family (the Johnsons, formerly known as the Ojantakanens) has been in this house on Woodbury Street ever since the nuns left—I am something like the sixth generation to live in these hallowed halls (though they’re actually more hollowed by squirrels than anything else). When my dad was growing up, the family bathed in a tin washtub, used an outhouse in the backyard and tended to an ailing grandmother named “Nunni,” who I always imagine looked much like Grandma Georgina in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” My dad grew up sharing a twin bed with all three of his siblings. As various relatives died and my father’s siblings moved away, he decided to return home for good.
My paternal grandmother kept the ground floor of the house in its original form all her life. My dad, however, had bigger plans. As he and my mother began their life and family, he started blowing out walls, putting up beams, wiring new outlets, running new plumbing and bringing our house into the 20th century. He built a set of stairs up to the second floor so my grandmother could have her own door, and a porch facing the yard and the woods for enjoying long, warm summers. I recently asked him how he knew how to do all of that, and he said, “Well, I knew how to read.” Kudos on that one Dad.
Despite our determined efforts to bungle around in the present, my house is always bringing up the past. Our house is built on the old type of foundation: rocks that were just there, in the ground, that seemed steady enough to build on. Inevitably, our house shifts and moves, like the earth. Our dingy and cramped cellar is full of treasures—oil lamps, root-cellar style shelves, 4-inch-long nails and tools.
Of course, it’s also full of trash—lead paint, broken sets of croquet and old air conditioners. But what I love most are the stacks and stacks of old photographs, report cards, military service discharge papers, newspaper clippings and even an empty flour sack dating to 1856 we found under some floorboards. It’s no surprise, then, that when we were cleaning out my grandmother’s closet this summer, I found a strange, block-shaped stone with a plug in the bottom, and my dad reached for it saying, “Ah, Nunni! We’ve been looking for her!”
I know that I’ve been extremely lucky to have a home full of my family and full of my history. I am, as they say, #blessed.