Mud Walls and Princess Grace's Doorjamb
Frequently in this space I have spoken of the imperfection of mud, how nicely it weathers and wears whether inside or out, and how a mud wall is never right until it has a few soft cracks and divots. Though this is not necessarily an attribute of mud alone, I like materials that reflect, as the preamble to the Charter of Venice so quotably states, ". . .a message from the past." It is this sentimentality, in my case by no means perfunctory, that contributes to my penchant for deferred maintenance. Other reasons have been suggested as well.
There is something to this, the sentimentality I mean. I believe there is something rather deep in all of us that asks our conscious lives to live a little in our formative years. For those of us who have by luck or by choice stayed close to the place of their birth and rearing, there are plenty of opportunities to let the conscious reign. Those moments are usually sparked, at least in my case, by something tangible.
Many years ago, long before she died on that switchback in Monaco, I saw a short clip about the house in Philadelphia where Grace Kelly née Grimaldi grew up. It seemed like an ordinary enough place but one thing was outstanding: The marks on a doorjamb that recorded her growth. How could mom and dad have known what a life they were so inconspicuously documenting -- a near fairy-tale story of Hollywood, glamour, royalty and the Riviera? And how astonishing that the house painters had not been there! A few pencil marks and a message from the past had survived.
In our house we have some lovely mud walls. Three or four years ago when we just had to double our space to accommodate a new child and an inexplicably expanding library, we had an opportunity to surround ourselves in earth -- in at least part of the house. It took a while, but the first cracks have appeared and there are some nicks and scuffs where furniture barely fit and wheeled toys ran momentarily out of control. And there is something else, something I have never seen before, and for two full years it drove me crazy.
Just outside our youngest (now seven) daughter's room there appeared some faint, white spots about three feet above the floor. Now, it is my job to assess and correct problems in earthen buildings, so I watched the spots with an analytical eye. They didn't seem to migrate around, nor become more intense, or to fade. But more appeared regularly, on average one a week.
How could this be? Stains on a new and solid mud plaster? I ran through my checklist for such pathologies and drew a blank.
Then one appeared, on a Friday, that was sort of a dark brownish-red. Three or four Fridays later another one just like it appeared. By now I just figured that I was occupying the fourth corner of the Bermuda Triangle, or that I had built our house over yet another Santa Fe psychic vortex.
My psychosis was arrested when I walked through the door to find Sophia sucking on the wall. It all came clear: Her sister, Amanda (now thirty-five), comes for dinner and a play date on Thursdays. Amanda has always liked mud, and the dark brownish-red spots are those where, when instructing her little sister in the mystic arts of geophagy, she had forgotten to remove her lipstick.
What a trip. There is a downside, and that is that new spots have ceased to appear. Sophia was caught in the practice of the pseudo-occult, ratted on her sister and now they are both behaving. They needn't. Our mud wall, like Princess Grace's doorjamb, is always in need of messages.