Our Expensive Old House And Its 'Rainbow Connection'

'Where's Bob Villa when you need him?" I groaned. "This old house!"

The roofer had promised to slip an estimate for the new roof through our mail slot. And here it was. The final figure was high, so high I sank into the chair at the foot of the stairs in our hall. "This old house," I muttered again.

Ours is not a sensible house, as my mother will tell you. It's a Victorian relic in what was once a suburb, and now is a neighborhood, of Philadelphia.

When my husband, Rich, bought the house 12 years ago, it was a paint-peeling, dust-laden mausoleum - a kind of memorial to the family that had lived in it since it was built in 1887. The remaining daughters, Miss Helen and Miss Albertine, in their mid-90s, were glad to sell their 15-room house "as is" to Rich, that nice young man from their church.

And Rich, a former history major and avid collector, treasured its clutter: shaky wicker chairs, faded family photos, Depression-era bestsellers, yellowed hat boxes, and all.

Only after I accepted Rich's "love me, love my house" proposal seven years ago did I learn that, just like Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard," our Victorian beauty would demand loving - and expensive - attention.

I looked at the roofer's estimate and sighed. I remembered how my friend Sue, a real estate agent, had warned me: "Sure, old houses have character. But they're a bad investment. No resale value. You'll never get back the money you've poured into this place." What would she say about this latest five-figure fix?

"Mommy, what are you doing? Mommy?" My three-year-old daughter, perhaps surprised to see me sitting down in midafternoon, climbed onto my lap. "Look, Mommy," said Kathleen, pointing to the hall stairs. "More rainbows - lots of them. I get Elizabeth."

As Kathleen ran off to find her big sister, I looked at the rainbows - small beams of colored light, sparkling on the white-painted (and badly scuffed) baseboards of the curved staircase that leads from our wide entry hall to the second floor. I had never looked up at the steps from so low an angle before. The beveled glass on our front door had acted as a prism, refracting light coming through the hall's windows. The two top windowpanes, like those in many Victorian houses, are banded by small colored squares of leaded glass. Sunlight streaming through them can create rays of blue, red, green, and gold. Rainbows, say the girls. With 11 such windows on both sides of the house, we've discovered rainbows in the morning and at sunset, on the floor and the walls. But this was the first time we had noticed these midafternoon marvels, dancing on our steps.

"Ooh, they're so pretty," said Elizabeth, rushing in. With the understatement typical of five-year-olds, she added, "These are the most beautiful rainbows in the world! Even better than our other ones."

She and her sister slid up and down the stairs, scootching this way and that to have the rainbows play on their arms, legs, and feet.

"Kathleen, we're wearing rainbows!" said Elizabeth. Kathleen raised her arms in delight.

Wearing rainbows.

We'll get the new roof somehow, I know - even though I also know that my friend in real estate is right. So is my mother (of course). Ours is not a sensible house. But we are not sensible people, looking for resale value. We are a family that likes rainbows, and we are happy where we can find them - if we just remember to look.

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