One-Hoss Shay


Remember “The one-hoss shay,” an Oliver Wendell Holmes poem about an open carriage built by the deacon who used only the strongest, most hardened materials? Every component was exactly as strong as every other. That chaise wasn’t about to wear out, but everything in it would break down at once.

One hundred years to the day after it was completed, it collapsed into splinters:

“[I]t went to pieces all at once, –
All at once, and nothing first, –
Just as bubbles do when they burst.”

Let’s see. After we got married in 1956 we lived in rented apartments for several years. Dave had the GI Bill to spend on a new house, so we bought as soon as we could – in 1957 – with our first baby on the way.

It was a simple ranch-style three-bedroom with full basement, in a tract in New Jersey. It was clean and bright on a slashed and burned lot, and I hated it. Paid $12,450 for that house, to which we added a carport and a little vegetable garden.

Can you imagine raising three little girls in a one-bathroom house?

We were going to church in an old town nearby, a vacation town for Philadelphians originally, with a better school system and trees shading all the streets. Especially when snow smothered sounds and traffic, Haddon Heights became the kind of “hometown” icon we Americans seem to share as a collective memory of childhood.

We started to crave that atmosphere for our children and when the house on 8th Avenue went on the market in 1964, we traded up. It was a two-story Dutch colonial with one-and-a-half baths, a porch on two sides, and an apple tree in the back. Further, our lot backed up against the church lot, and we could easily walk to church, and to a drugstore, a dime store, the library, and the girls’ schools, for that matter.

Dave wanted to live in Florida, where his childhood memories were spawned. When his company, Owens Corning, opened a plant in Georgia in 1971, he saw it as a way to move South, and helped with the startup. Didn’t get him much closer to sailable waters, but at least the weather was milder and the population less dense.

Our first house here, on Pebblestump, had two-and-a-half baths and four bedrooms. When the kids left home, we “downsized” to our present place in 1984, and plan to live here until we die.

I tell you this because the years all blend together, and we hardly noticed that our stay at one address went from about seven years to 13 years to 26.

The average American moves every five to seven years. We’ve skewed the averages, I’m afraid.

Moving into a new house usually means updating appliances, light bulbs, carpet. Unlike the “one-hoss shay” all the components we live with have expired at different times, so the cost spreads out over the years.

It starts innocently enough. A light bulb in the bathroom burns out, then a hall light. The walls need fresh paint. Then the big-ticket items: The refrigerator starts to act up and the carpet needs to be replaced. Several of the huge double-pane glass panels that form the back wall of the house fogged over in less than five years.

The water heater giving out didn’t surprise us, nor did the washer, but the roof? I think ours was the only house on the street that never had storm damage, but it started leaking here and there.

Then the microwave quit.

As I was listing things we’ve had to replace, however, a curious realization finally reached me. That five-to-seven-year rule should mean we had to replace all the mechanical stuff about five times during the 26 years we’ve been here, and of course that is not the case.

When the heating and air conditioning fellow came, the very day after we called him, he said the motor that drives the compressor burned out. An air conditioner more than 15 years is a gift, he said, to soften the blow, and it was time to replace it. Modern refrigerants don’t work in old air conditioners, and the old freon gas cannot be used.

And if you have to replace the air conditioner, you might as well replace the furnace too. They’re the same age, share the same thermostat and fan system, and are subject to the same usage.

Equally archaic: wallpaper. The downstairs half-bath is especially faded, but I can’t bring myself to just grab a corner and rip it down. We put up wallpaper in the kitchen, all the bathrooms and the laundry room, and only the kitchen has been replaced, by paint. Wallpaper still up after 26 years – gosh, that must be a world record. A friend remarked, “Oh, good, wallpaper is coming back in style.” When and why did it go out of style?

Be grateful for small favors, I think. Everything could have gone “all at once.”

“End of the wonderful one-hoss shay.

Logic is logic. That’s all I say.”