Calling my first house a fixer-upper puts too nice a spin on it. Besides being a dump, it had been decorated by Bad Taste, Inc. But I wasn’t complaining. The faux knotty-pine dinning room paneling, the gold-vein mirror tiled bedroom, and the blue cow living room wallpaper were the reason the house sold way below market.
The first priority on my renovation hit list was to evict the cows. For hours I steamed the old wall paper, but the stubborn bovines refused to go easily. Around 2 a.m., tired, bleary-eyed, I coaxed off a particularly obstinate section of paper, and there on the wall was an eye . . . staring at me. Visions of an undiscovered mural by Diego Rivera went through my head as a rush of new-found energy took over me. When an entire strip of the paper fell to the floor in one satisfying piece. I could hardly wait to step back and admire my—six-foot tall penguin. There it stood, in all its black, orange and hot pink glory.
Painted in profile, it had one beady little eye, which seemed to follow my every move. It gave me the creeps. All I wanted to do was strip the rest of the walls and paint over the poultry.
An hour later—was I seeing things, or was another eye staring at me? By sunrise I had uncovered and entire family of penguins. A father, mother, and trailing behind, a couple of four-foot tall babies.
What were the old owners thinking? Too bad houses come with mortgages and not explanations. Was the living room used as a playroom for a day care center? Maybe it was a child’s sick room and the penguins were there to cheer him up. The next day I called the old owners, but they said the wallpaper was there when they bought the house and they weren’t aware there was anything under it. That didn’t surprise me. What I did find odd was living all those years with the cows. Oh well, other people’s taste will always be one of life’s great mysteries.
After removing the remaining wallpaper, no more penguins appeared, but something even more strange happened—the penguins started to look friendly, even charming. I began calling them Fred, Martha and the twins. Though I’d planned on painting the room, I decided to wallpaper. I just didn’t have the heart to forever entomb Fred and Martha under two coats of latex. I wondered if this had happened to the owners 40 years ago? I’ll never know. Like the Easter Island statues, my penguins are mysterious survivors of a lost time.
Later that week as I finished papering, it was hard to say good-bye to my little family. Fred remained stoic as I smoothed the last strip of paper over his eye. And the room is finished now, I still like to think of the penguins strolling across my wall, and I wonder how I’ll be judged by the next owners when they remove my wallpaper. I hope they realize that it’s the little mysteries of life that make it interesting.