Casa

 

I told you that my friend Delia had offered, and I had accepted, an apartment of two rooms in the east wing of her house.  As of today’s writing I have been in my rooms for about six weeks.  I find them most comfortable.  I’ve told you once about the house; now I’ll tell you about it again, with more detail.

Delia’s house was built about 1900 in the prevalent style of that time.  The house stands right on the sidewalk and presents to the outside a very plain wall with barred windows.  The house is of an ell shape and stands on a corner lot.  The west face of the house, on Liberty Street, is 102 feet long, and the south face, on Hidalgo Alley, runs 76 feet to the end of the house.  Beyond that is a garage door.  Behind this ell shaped house is a fully enclosed patio, walled on its north and east sides and bound by the ell of the house on the other sides.  The house has seen many changes.  When Delia and her husband, then living, acquired the house, around 1983, it was virtually in ruins.  The restoration now is far advanced, but has some distance to go.

Summers can be quite hot here, and the house was built to stay cool in a pre-air-conditioned age.  The ceilings range from nine feet to more than twelve.  The higher ceilings are on the front part of the ell, facing Liberty.  There is just room between the ceilings and roof for the framework that supports them both.  The other side of the ell is not of the original house but was added later, with nine foot ceilings and about five feet between ceiling and roof.  This part of the roof is, and always was, corrugated metal.  The older part of the house originally had a mud roof.  Yes.  Over a very strong framework the roof was made of about eighteen inches of hard, dry mud.  This roof, along with walls both exterior and interior of about twenty inches thickness, was most effective at keeping the house cool.  But mud?  Wouldn’t it wash off?  Well, yes, but very slowly, since there is little rain here and plenty of sun to keep the roof hard baked.  In the old days, every few years people with mud roofs would add more mud.  When corrugated metal became available, people started taking off their mud roofs and replacing them with metal, and that’s what happened to this house somewhere in the past.  As a result, the old main part, with its ceiling close to the roof, does not stay cool as well as the newer part with a generous attic space.  I might mention that in time people realized a metal roof should be put on over the mud, not in place of the mud.  But not in time to save the mud roof here.

This house is quite spacious.  Measured on the outside, it would appear to have 5700 square feet of space.  The thick walls, however, eat up about a thousand square feet.  It’s still a big house.

The exterior doors out front are double, opening to a magnificent six feet, leading into a spacious foyer.  I am told that back before the renovation began, there was an old couple here who had a Volkswagen bug, a bug that they drove right in the front door and parked in the foyer.  The story is credible; one could still park a VW—or two—in the foyer today.  The windows are all of the casement type, opening inward.  They are of an elegant design, each sash having three lights in its upper part but solid wood in the lower part.  Many interior doors are double and have many small lights, like french doors.  Other doors have a single plate glass panel, round-topped, in their upper half.

Back to my apartment.  The main room (18 foot by 15) is my office, sitting room, and kitchenette.  A somewhat smaller room (16 by 15) serves as bedroom.  The bedroom has no window save a little transom over the patio door.  The main room has one window, and a transom over its patio door.  Despite this shortage of window space, the rooms are light and airy.  The walls and ceilings are of white plaster.  The floors have a very light gray tile.  A single hundred watt bulb overhead in each room makes the room much lighter than you might expect.

The wall of the main room facing the patio is my kitchen space, with washing machine on one side of the patio door and stove, sink, and refrigerator on the other.  The stove and sink are quite old.  The stove burns gas.  I have never seen an electric stove in Mexico, though some people still use wood stoves.  My sink is the old fashioned type where the pipes come through the backsplash, not up through the deck.  I was assured by two or three plumbers that I would not be able to buy a mixing faucet for this kind of sink anywhere in Mexico.  So on a trip to the States I found the faucet I needed at a specialty plumbing shop.  Immediately upon return to Mexico with my treasure, I found the same type of faucet, in a better design, in a local building supply house, for about half the price I had paid for mine.  My 1920s style kitchen has drawn many compliments; Delia’s lady friends always say, –Oh, how cute!–  For my part, I’d like to find a working 1920s refrigerator to complete the ensemble.  You know the kind, with the condenser and compressor on top.  On second thought maybe that is not such a good idea.  If I had such a fridge I might not be able to rest until I had replaced my automatic washing machine with a wringer model.  I have, by the way, no indoor dryer.  The outdoor solar powered one works just fine for me, as it does for many mexicans in this dry area.

We walled off one corner of the bedroom to make a bathroom.  It is tiny, but nicely finished, with tile floor and walls.  A corner shower is bounded by the walls on two sides and curtains on the other two.  With a little practice even a man of my size can shower without flooding the place.  It took three or four floods to get the hang of it.

The building of the bathroom was an eye opener for me.  Coming as I do from the eastern United States, my knowledge of carpentry is limited to frame construction.  Mexican construction is entirely different.  As a rule floors are of concrete, in the better homes covered with tile.  If wood is used, it is still laid over concrete.  Some wall cores are still made of old time adobe, sun dried mud-and-straw blocks.  Others today are made of a kind of soft brick.  Exterior wall faces are stuccoed and interior faces plastered.  And so it is that my bathroom walls are made of brick six inches thick, covered with plaster.  For installation of pipes, the plumbers coolly dug channels through the concrete floor, put their pipes in place, and covered them with fresh concrete.  Pipes in walls, and electrical conduits, were handled similarly; channels were dug out, then plastered over.  There is no sheet rock in my bathroom, and the only wood is for the jambs and lintel of the door.

I have told you elsewhere that Casas Grandes is a very old town.  Much of its age is highly visible.  For old buildings and other structures, when they cease to be useful, are generally left standing until their space is needed for something else.  And, when possible, old buildings and ruins of buildings are incorporated into new construction.

We have a dramatic illustration of this policy just off the patio.  You go through an opening in the east wall of the patio and find yourself in a rectangular walled space about fifteen by twenty feet, and right in the middle of this space is the old privy that once served this house.  No, mexicans usually don’t tear down their old privies.  They can still be mighty handy when the city water system, as is its wont, breaks down for a few hours.  And one thinks here, What a neat idea, a little walled space to hide the privy.  But wait.  In one corner of this walled space is a fireplace.  And as one looks up, one can see vestiges of old rafters and a mud roof.  And one realizes the privy was built in what had at some former time been a room of a house.

Living among the ruins.  The old left to fade slowly, at its own pace. 

It is a most civilized way to live.

 

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As for living in this house, it proves to meet my needs quite well.  It is easy to organize and clean.  It is quiet and cool.  It is a good place to work.  And there is ample privacy.  There can be any amount of activity in Delia’s wing of the house without my ever being aware of it.  And I am one short block away from the church, both plazas, the post office, library, and grocery store.

And Delia and I function well here.  I usually spend the working  hours of the day alone, writing and doing whatever else I have to do.  I go over to her kitchen of an evening for supper and conversation, then wash her dishes and come back to my rooms.  Some days this is the only time we see each other.  But we also set aside shopping days and go into Nuevo together (she does not drive!) to run all our errands. 

I also help Delia with landscaping and small repairs, and try always to be present when she negotiates with men to do some work, and while the work is being done.  She believes that workmen are prone to take advantage of a lady who does not have a man to back her up, and she may be right.  In any case I watch workmen when they are here; and sometimes, if I have any competence in the kind of work being done, I join in with them.

I do miss having windows on all four sides, and large shade trees, and the babbling irrigation ditch I had alongside my casita.  But my gains in taking these rooms easily outweigh my losses.

 

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Not everyone here lives in a fine house.  I have described Guille’s house for you, three small rooms.  There is another lady here, Germinia, who built her house with her own hands.  She describes her house succinctly: –Everything is crooked, but nothing leaks.

 

© 2004 Joseph Mansfield

 

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