THE GUSTUFSEN HOUSE
Sitting at the dinner table, Jake heard the prophetic words as his father spoke the events of his day, "Mary, I bought the Gustufsen place today."
At that pronouncement there was only a groan heard around the table.
Pa was astonemason by trade, and was known for his good work. He had been trained by his Welsh immigrant father, who had been brought to America by wealthy patrons who wanted their American castles built in the manner of those in the old country. This had been the start of their American dynasty a fathers taught their sons the trade.
As long as Jake could remember, Pa would buy a downtrodden house with, as he described it, good bones. The family would move into the house and after his regular work. Pa would renovate it with loving care. As soon as the renovation was complete. Pa would buy another house, and the process would be repeated.
As soon as Jake and his brothers were old enough,Pa put them to work on their current house. Pa took it for granted they enjoyed the finished product as much as he did. Jake hated it.
As he grew older, Jake's father took him to assist on renovations he was doing on local buildings and residences. On one such job Jake discovered his true love. The home they were restoring had an immense library of leather bound books. They looked as if they had never been touched. The homeowner caught Jake running a loving hand down the back of one of the volumes. The homeowner asked if Jake would like to borrow one of the books to read at home. That kind offer lead to a lifetime of love for literature, and a friendship that kept growing through the years.
The thought of having to renovate the Gustufsen house terrified Jake. That was the witch's house. The Gustufsen house was located in the next town near his grandparent's home. It had been owned by a stooped old crone of a woman, who set her dogs on trespassers. The consensus of all the neighborhood children was she was a witch.
The house sat on about the equivalent of three city lots. It was a big, ivy choked old place, surrounded by a four foot cut stonewall topped, by wrought iron fencing, topped by vicious looking spikes.
Knowing his father had always admired that great stone pile of a house, Jake was not surprised by the news. However, he knew what the result would be, and he would be expected to be a part of it. "Willym," said his wife Mary, rising to stand behind her chair gaining the attention of everyone, "when we moved to this house you said I did not have to move again into a house needing renovation. This house is finished just the way I like it. Always before our houses had become too small with added babies. There are no new babies now, and I don't feel like putting up with all that restoration mess again."
"Sit, Sweet Mary," Pa replied. "You do not have to move this time. My business is doing well. The next time you move it will be into your own private castle where you will be the queen. I promise, the Gustufsen house will be my last personal restoration. When it is finished to your satisfaction, we will move."
True to his word, Willym did not disturb his Sweet Mary, but the rest of the family was another matter. Willym approached the restoration with all the planning and zeal of a general preparing for a military campaign. All the children were put to work clearing away years of debris and overgrown vegetation from the landscaping. In the process they found a downtrodden gazebo, dog kennels, and many tortured looking trees choked with ivy and other unidentified vines. There was a long unused garden shed, and a stone carriage house occupied by an ancient automobile. The Gustufsen family had once been a moving force in the town. This was all that remained of their past glory.
Willym declare everything must go except the carriage house and automobile. The automobile he found fascinating in a way. It reminded him of the people he had watched come and go at the shore mansions where he helped his father as a young man.
The day Jake had been dreading finally arrived. Pa declared it was now time to restore the house itself, or as he called it, "Sweet Mary's castle." Jake was terrified. The thought of even entering the place made him break out in a cold sweat. He could not help feeling old Mrs. Gustufsen still haunted the place.
Jake's younger brother, George, scoffed at him, "It's just an old heap of a house. What is it that makes you afraid?"
He replied, "I can't help feeling once I go into that house, I will be trapped there for life. I feel like I will be absorbed right into the stone."
George eyed him skeptically, but said no more.
Pa made a small ritual. He lined up the children to enter by age, oldest down to youngest. As they entered he spoke, "This is to be Sweet Mary's castle. You may eventually live here, but only at her pleasure."
Like the yard, the house was filled with clutter. There were years of accumulated family items. Since there had been no heirs, Pa had purchased the place 'as is.' It was obvious the first order of business would be to remove the contents and then the restoration could begin. Setting the children to work, one room at a time, they cleared away the useless items. The furniture and paintings, plus the wall hangings, were left as they were found. Once the place was in reasonable order, Willym brought Sweet Mary to pick the things she liked to be moved to storage. They would be refurbished and returned later. With this accomplished he would call in experts to value what remained, then arrange an auction. The proceeds gained would be used toward the restoration.
The main floor was entered via a large portico spanning the circular drive and the entry stairs. The large carved oak door entered into a marble tiled entry hall. Toward the back of the hall rose two sweeping staircases leading to the second floor. The hall continued beside the staircases to the rear service area. Pocket doors on each side of the entry hall lead to a stately dining room on one side, and a reception hall with a fireplace, and several French doors leading out to what had once been lavish gardens on the other.
Behind the reception hall were 'retirement' rooms for ladies, and another for the gentlemen. Two baths were included in this area and closets to hang their outer wear.
On the other side, behind the dining room stood a large butler's pantry full of glassware, silverware and a china service fit for royalty. The back door of the pantry led to the kitchen. When Willym told Sweet Mary about the kitchen, he said it reminded him of the kitchen his mother had described working in as a young girl on millionaire's row. Off the kitchen was a vast pantry and laundry area, with an exit toward the carriage house.
At the top of the staircases to the second floor, were two parallel halls toward the back of the house. On one side was a suite of rooms fit for Sweet Mary. There was a bedroom with a bed tall enough to require steps to enter it, a sitting room, and bath with a walk-in closet.
Off the second hall they discovered a billiard and game room, which Willym declared to be his domain. Next door was a good size library complete with fireplace. For the first time Jake emerged from his constant feeling of dread to be enthusiastic about something. A bathroom, coat closet and a stairway to the third floor completed that wing.
The third floor revealed six bedrooms and two baths. Stepping into the large walk-in closet in one of the bedrooms, Jake discovered yet another staircase. On seeing it, George immediately wanted to climb it to see where it went.
"I am not going up there," said Jake. Since they had yet to find anything sinister, he was sure it must lead to old Mrs. Gustufsen's witches den. He had remembered seeing lights in the dormer windows up there on Halloween.
"We have to go up," said George.
"Only if Pa insists," said Jake.
Behind the arguing pair a voice said, "Pa insists." How did a big man walk so quietly, wondered Jake.
"Jake's afraid to go up there," tattled George. Pa had known for some time that Jake was reluctant to take part in the renovation, but he did not know why. Since the boy had done his part well in spite of his feeling. Pa took pity on him. "In case there is a problem up there, I will lead the way, just to be sure everything is all right. I have to check the electrical wiring anyway, as I will have to have the whole place rewired. What we find will affect the amount of the job when I put it up for bid."
The top of the staircase was encircled by a sturdy railing. The attic was very large, the same size as the floor below. On one side were a number of small rooms, each lit by a small fan window. "These were the servant's rooms," exclaimed Pa. Down the other side toward the front of the house were six large dormer windows, each with a sitting ledge underneath.
Several old-fashioned electrical drop-lights hung from the peaked ceiling. Between several of the dormers were what turned out to be doored closets, and a bathroom. Inside the closets were servant's uniforms of a bygone era. The open space was cluttered with trunks, valises, and boxes. There were a few odd pieces of once discarded furniture.
Looking for their father, the younger children clattered in emitting squeals of delight when they found boxes of old toys, trunks of clothing that were just the thing for playing dress up. Perching under a large ladies hat, complete with trailing ostrich feather, the oldest girl preened before a dusty cheval mirror. Another girl opened a chest, and reached for a tiara that lay on a jumbled pile of jewelry.
"No you don't" said Pa, retrieving the tiara and jewelry. Sweet Mary gets to explore this first. Won't she be surprised?"
Eyeing the chest one small boy asked, "Was Mrs. Gustufsen a pirate?"
"No", replied Pa, "but her father was a sea captain, not a pirate."
Pa had said each child could chose one of the bedrooms below, and furnish it as they pleased, as a reward for the help with the renovation. It wasn't long while clearing the attic, before the clothing trunks and boxes disappeared into the girls' rooms. Two of the boys lugged the toy boxes to the room they were to share. They all considered themselves well paid for their work. George had found various nautical items he desired. There were telescopes, ship's models, and other nautical memorabilia.
Slowly as Jake surveyed the attic, he decided once it was cleaned up it wouldn't be so bad after all. There wasn't anything more they hadn't seen.
Between two of the dormers stood a bookcase that had been full of the memorabilia George had claimed, and the rest was full of various books. When Jake finally reached into the bookcase to see what kind of books were there, he discovered there were a number of old Captain Gustufsen's ship's logs and journals. Jake decided that bookcase and its contents would provide hours of adventure to a world he knew nothing about. He loved any book, but these were about real life adventures, not fiction.
George helped Jake carry the books to his room. That was the easy part. Now they had to take that heavy bookcase down that steep staircase to the bedroom below. As the two boys wrestled the bookcase away from the wall, they were startled to find two wainscot doors. They were not like the ones on the closets.
Grabbing a passing small brother, Jake told him, "Go tell Pa we found something, and we want him to see it." Once more Jake's old dread returned. Was there no end to the surprises in this house?
When he saw the doors, Pa was as curious as the boys. As they opened the doors a musty smell floated out. The space ran out under the eaves. It was not very large, and was roughly floored. There were some tin plates and cups scattered about. There was an old blanket in. one corner, and candle stubs in glass jars nearby. On the walls were marks in the rafters like someone had been counting off the days. Jake and George were horrified. Who had been locked up in here?
Seeing the boy's dismay Pa spoke up. "I have heard of places like this, but I have never seen one before. This was a station on the Underground Railroad smuggling slaves from the South on their way to Canada. This whole house is a history lesson. It is telling us about the past and all who lived here at every turn. I don't think anyone has seen this room in over one hundred years."
Once the house was roughly cleaned up, it didn't take long for the plumbing, heating and wiring to be replaced. The various workmen were fascinated by the place, and asked many questions about it. As a result of reading Captain Gustufsen's logs and journals, Jake had become quite knowledgeable about its history, and enjoyed showing off his knowledge to all who asked.
The grounds had been re-landscaped, a new gazebo was erected, and the kennels were refurbished, and were now occupied by a trio of dogs of various ancestry, the prized pets of the children.
The time had finally come to move to Sweet Mary's castle. Pa insisted Sweet Mary was to be escorted to her new castle in style. The house was not the only thing that had been restored. The old town car from the garage had been returned to its sparkling glory as well. On moving day Pa, complete in one of the old cleaned and pressed chauffeur's uniforms from the attic, picked up his Sweet Mary, and drove her in style to her castle. As they arrive under the portico she was greeted by George and escorted to the front hall. There she was greeted by the children. Jake put away the car, while Pa did a quick change, so he could give her the grand tour.
Sweet Mary had seen some of what had been done, but waited patiently for the project to be finished so Pa could have the pleasure of showing her the final product. It was a gift of love, and she accepted it as such, but privately she admitted anywhere with her family would have made her happy.
Epilogue - Twenty years later
When he graduated from high school, Jake had taken such an interest in history Pa had agreed to his getting a higher education. He had earned several degrees, and was considered an expert in his field.
A few years ago, when Pa had died, George happily took over the family business. He had made it continue to prosper. The rest of the children were living good lives throughout the area, and seemed to be bent on re- populating it. Sweet Mary continued to live in her comer of the castle with what sometimes seemed to be a never-ending line of visitors, plus an abundance of grandchildren.
This evening Jake was sitting in front of the fireplace in the library of the castle. At his feet lay a rug loving mutt with half closed eyes full of contentment. He had to admit his early fears about the castle absorbing him had partially come true. When Pa died he had moved back to the castle since his mother was incapable of giving it its proper attention.
Once each year Jake held an open house for the entire area to visit. As a part of his history thesis he had written a book about the story of this house and its history. He had just published a sequel, the biography of Captain Gustufsen, written from the information in his logs and journals. He had felt since the captain had no family to preserve his history, Jake should do it.
The family still referred to the place as Sweet Mary's castle, but a brass plaque on the stonewall beside the entry gate proclaims this is The Gustufsen House. Each year at his open house, Jake makes sure everyone is aware of its history.