Steeped in History, by Martha Johnson

The stairs in our house are steep.

When Simeon Long built it in 1791 for his family, I imagine he was young and agile, but because of the steep slope of the stairs, necessitated by ceilings fairly high for that era, his grandmother must have had hard work hoisting her skirts and hiking up to the second floor. The front stairs are, we believe, original. Interestingly enough, one of the risers, about halfway up, is taller than the rest, requiring care not to trip. Our Scottie dog, Stuart, has fallen down them enough times to avoid the ‘very front hall’ altogether and carefully makes his way up and down the kitchen stairs, much newer, but still a mountain to a short dog.

When the house was raised in 1995, a full basement was added with a laundry and a family room where the ‘big TV ’ goes, something not imagined in Simeon’s wildest dreams. In his era, the family would have crowded into much smaller rooms, and we think the el in the back was not added until many years after he moved his family off island to Claremont, New Hampshire, where Longs still live. These underground stairs are steeper yet, and Stuart requires a human elevator to navigate them.

We are thinking we’ll carpet the newer stairs to give him a fighting chance for a longer life, and to help our old bones as we climb, carrying fresh sheets, from the basement to the top floor, pausing briefly in the kitchen to catch our breath. ‘Our own stair machine.’ We laugh. These are steep stairs. We are senior citizens, optimistic for our energy levels to remain high with this added exercise.

Our children are encouraging us to move to one floor living. We are encouraging our children to mind their own businesses.It takes a certain kind of person to live in an old house, and a few sacrifices as well. Chilly breezes sneak through ancient windows, heating ducts need clever placement on the uneven wide pine floors, and fireplace wood is expensive on this island.There’s a little sag on a house that has been settling for more than 200 years. But can anyone not find the romantic pull of history and the nighttime sense that we are surrounded by past tenants drifting through the rooms with a candle? We won’t find that in a new ranch in a housing development.

We are proud to know that our names will someday be added to the long list of previous caretakers. So many feet have climbed our stairs, puffing a little at the top, perhaps, carrying a baby, or firewood, fresh sheets, or a shaking small dog.


Martha Johnson is an aspiring essayist who keeps her family and friends amused with short glimpses into her life. There is usually a dog involved.