Like a lot of people, we lost heat last week when the temperatures dropped below zero and stayed there. We shivered in our bed like old Mr. and Mrs. Astor in the movie “Titanic” – until my husband finally went down cellar and pried away the ceiling-high "sandwich" of wood and insulation between the house-wall and the dirt-floored world under our kitchen addition.

Like a lot of people, we lost heat last week when the temperatures dropped below zero and stayed there.


We shivered in our bed like old Mr. and Mrs. Astor in the movie “Titanic” – until my husband finally went down cellar and pried away the ceiling-high "sandwich" of wood and insulation between the house-wall and the dirt-floored world under our kitchen addition.


The warmer air flowed in and thawed the frozen pipe in no time at all, putting that crisis behind us, at least temporarily.


But it’s what we saw as we peered into that dirt-floored space that I think of today: bits of tubing, small lengths of lumber and a couple of lids from the workers’ coffees cups: all these things sealed in there since the mid-1980s.


They have me thinking about the many things people find when they go looking inside walls, or under floorboards, or even beneath layers of the wallpaper, like the series of amorous stick-figures we once uncovered with the date “1929” scrawled alongside.


Far more interesting is what my friend found in the rafters of her 1730s house: a couple of whiskey bottles dated 1853 and 1874, both with labels perfectly legible, and an 1844 pamphlet called “General Rules for the Preservation of the Teeth,” stating that ill health in the mouth for makes ill health throughout the body, a notion many of us think of as new.


Over my lifetime I have lived in nine houses, every one of which has given me unexpected treasure.


A quick tally yields this list:


From the place we live in now, a stove from the 1920s, a fridge from the 1930s and a cast iron form into which you pour hot tallow for the making of candles.


From the place before that, left behind in the dank oil-smelling cellar, a headboard dark and gummy with a century’s grit for whose sake I taught myself the art of refinishing - with the result that to this day that headboard sits in our bedroom. 


And though we have never used the footboard of this old walnut bedstead, we have kept it, too, for the all-too-human toenail marks scratched into its finish, and for the fact that the whole thing is bowed, having been pushed outward night after night by the long-gone force of some young person’s ever-lengthening body.


These are treasures and I’m so glad I learned how to restore them. I mean, by what other alchemy could you pull honey-hued tiger maple out from under a dry blackened finish smeared over with the rings of a hundred paint cans? What was an ugly hulk is now once again a graceful buffet standing tall on its handsome turned legs.


As I name these treasures I begin to remember other treasures from another and another former home, leading clear back to my baby days.


In those years a horsehair sofa bought “used” in the late 1880s by a farm boy for his momma’s birthday had, for more than half a century reposed under dusty sheets in the cellar. Today? Its carved wood frame glowing and newly covered in pale-blue velvet, it lights up my living room.


I could go on, as I bet you could too.


There is so much is lost on the human  journey, so much we must all too soon relinquish, from youth to strength to fleetness of foot.  How puzzling yet comforting that our things outlive us and by so many years, and stand ready to tell those who come after us even just a little of who we were.


Write Terry at terrymarotta@verizon.net or care of Ravenscroft Press, P.O. Box 270, Winchester, MA 01890. A glance at “Exit Only” next Sunday will show you pictures of these things. (See www.terrymarotta.wordpress.com.)