The Fayette Citizen-Weekend Page
Wednesday, October 6, 1999
Falling apart like the One-Hoss Shay

Lifestyle Columnist

Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay, That was built in such a logical way It ran a hundred years to a day...?

In Oliver Wendell Holmes' poem, “The Deacon's Masterpiece, or the Wonderful One-Hoss Shay,” the deacon builds a carriage, vowing that everything in it will be of such strength and quality that it will never fall apart bit by bit as most such conveyances do — first an axle, then a spring, wheel, or whipple-tree.

It was finished on Nov. 1, 1755, the date of an earthquake that devastated Portugal. And true to its maker's promise, the shay required neither repair nor restoration over the decades it was in use.

“Colts grew horses, beards turned gray, Deacon and deaconess dropped away, Children and grandchildren — where were they? But there stood the stout old one-hoss shay As fresh as on Lisbon-earthquake day!”

The years roll by, and 1855 is nearly gone. “There are traces of age in the one-hoss shay, A general flavor of mild decay, But nothing local, as one may say. There couldn't be — for the Deacon's art Had made it so like in every part That there wasn't a chance for one to start.”

You can guess what happens. On the first of November, the parson's taking a drive, meditating on Sunday's text, when he suddenly finds himself sitting on a rock, his carriage in splinters around him. “...It went to pieces all at once — All at once, and nothing first — Just as bubbles do when they burst.”

We're relating to Holmes' narrative these days. On a couple of levels.

Our house turns 15 years old this fall. We've painted it inside and out once, and it looks pretty good. We've learned to live with a couple of minor leaks that have steadfastly resisted repair (move the wooden rocker when it rains hard, and make sure the computer is covered with a plastic tablecloth when we go out of town).

Many of the double-paned windows have clouded, `way past warranty, naturally. And the screens on the porches are sagging and torn. Like the screen doors, they bear old wounds of doggy escape efforts.

But the house itself won't disintegrate like the one-hoss shay — I fervently hope! No, it's the contents of the house that are self-destructing in unison and as inevitably as the meter of a poem.

The carpet is faded and frayed. Replacing it will make the furniture look shabby, and we haven't wanted to spend the money to do that.

Wallpaper hung in 1984 is curling in kitchen and bathroom. Water heater, furnace, and air-conditioner are now on borrowed time, according to household appliance actuarials.

The ice maker on the fridge no longer tumbles cubes through a hole in the door, and the kitchen stove, which moved with us from our previous house, is 10 years past its expected life span. There are actually rust-holes in the bottom of the oven. The attached microwave quit years ago. Now scary spitting noises issue from its innards.

People who know these things say you shouldn't expect more than 10 or 12 years out of a mattress. Ours was already old when we moved here in 1984.

More alarming: When electric blankets came under fire (ooh, good one) last year, an expert appeared on the evening news to say he wouldn't sleep under one made with technology more than five to 10 years old. Ours is at least 25.

Even the Hoover upright recently gave notice by refusing to start until Dave jiggled its insides and soaked them with WD-40, his sure cure for most appliance ailments.

We bought a new toaster when the old one started spluttering last summer.

And just last week, Dave's trusty jigsaw quit — something about brushes being worn out, he said.

I'm beginning to see why so many people we know move into brand new houses with brand new stuff every 10 years or so. Starting out with everything new and moving before it gets really old means not having to replace stuff.

What's worrisome is that the contents of the house are not the only things around here looking as though the end is near. There are a couple of creaky people (not to mention one really old cat) in this house that are beginning to wonder when they're going to fall into a pile of splinters.

They have startling pains in their backs, knees that barely function, eyes and memories that require multiple sets of glasses.

“Memories that require glasses?” Of course. When you habitually lose your glasses — or pen or keys or favorite hat with the frog pin on it — it's simpler to have duplicates all over house and car.

As long as we have each other, Dave says, we'll shore up each other's memory and help each other rise from low stools or too-soft chairs.

Come to think of it, maybe that's why so many people we know get new spouses every 10 years or so too, to replace one that's starting to break down. Trouble is, sooner or later, you're bound to run out of able-bodied candidates.

“In fact, there's nothing that keeps its youth,” Holmes concluded, “So far as I know, but a tree and truth. (This is a moral that runs at large;

Take it. You're welcome. No extra charge.)”

End of the wonderful one-hoss shay.

Logic is logic. That's all I say.

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