A Splash of Red / by Beth Winegarner


The house next door to ours is getting a makeover. This is very common in San Francisco -- heck, it's really common on our block, where several houses have been remodeled in the six years we've lived here. When we moved in, ours was one of the nicer-looking houses on the block; now, it's one of the shabbier ones by comparison. But the refresh of our neighbor's house feels different.

When we moved in, Novelle was one of the first to welcome us to the block. She was friendly and chatty, and always found a way to work into conversation the fact that she'd survived a bout of cancer and could die at any time. She wore her frizzy gray hair long to the shoulders, and favored big glasses, comfortable pants and sweaters. If you bumped into her outside her house, you had to prepare for a chat that could last upwards of an hour. And, even though you needed to get inside to put away groceries or tend to the kids, you were fascinated enough to want to stay and listen.

Over time, I learned that she had worked for the author/journalist/activist Jessica Mitford, and was a psychotherapist who saw clients in her home. She told us that before we bought our house, and before the man who sold it to us, the house was owned by Nicomedes "Nick" Martinez, who had worked as a legislative assistant for Sen. John Burton and hosted lively dinner parties. It made me wish the walls could tell us all the San Francisco political secrets they might have absorbed.

Over the past year, Novelle grew thinner, but never let on to us that she was dying. In some ways, she seemed more energetic and purposeful than ever. A couple years ago, she'd had the front of her house re-done; workmen pulled down all the vines that had grown over the front of it, tore up the failing staircase, removed the shingles whose paint had faded to pink, nailed up new shingles and rebuilt her front stairs. At some point, though, the work trailed off, and went unfinished.

Earlier this year, I went outside one afternoon to find Novelle and three of her friends across the street, looking at the front of her house. She called me over and showed me a plank of wood with several colors of paint on it. "Which one do you like?" she asked. "I need to pick something for the front of the house." I can't remember all the colors, now; one was black, and another was a bold, deep red. I chose that one. "That's my favorite, too," she said. "I'm a painter, and it's one of my favorite colors to work with."

Novelle died in August. We found out when her son, who has the task of emptying her house and getting it ready for sale, told us one day while moving some of her belongings out onto the curb for passersby to pick through. On another day, he put out a deep red velvet chair, the fabric worn bald on the armrests. My partner pulled it into the garage for me. I haven't figured out what to do with it yet, but I'm glad to have something that she clearly used and loved.

Over the past two weeks, painters have set up scaffolding in front of her house, although it was days before I saw what colors they were using. This week, the shingles have gotten their new look: dark red paint, just as Novelle wanted, with a dark gray trim. Her son could have picked something more modern -- it's what would fetch a higher price from potential buyers. But I like to think that, somewhere along the way, she left specific orders to paint her house that color when the time came.