The healing power of home

Maryellen Nerz has battled breast cancer for eight years. "This house has helped me," she said.

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The living room of Marc and Maryellen Nerz-Stormez, with the floor-to-ceiling fireplace that Maryellen fell in love with at first sight. ( Amanda Cegielski / Staff Photographer )

For Maryellen Nerz, the word home has a meaning other people cannot readily appreciate.

She is not like other homeowners, those of us who walk into our houses and see the need for new floors, new paint, or new cabinets.

When Nerz walks into her Queen Anne Victorian in Strafford, Chester County, she sees, and feels, only calm.

"This house has helped me," said Nerz, who is in her eighth year of battling breast cancer, having made it past the five-year survival benchmark. "It really gives me some peace."

A visitor can see why upon entering the house Nerz and her husband, Marc Stormes, bought in 1997.

Built in the mid-1800s, this big house (about 4,000 square feet) seems to flow serenely from the large living room, with its floor-to-ceiling fireplace and mantel; across the hall to the dining room, with its rich red-flowered wallpaper border, pocket doors that work when they feel like it, and foot-high baseboards; to the landing, with its newel post that can put modern ones to shame with its girth.

Then up two floors, one of which contains Nerz and Stormes' bedroom, where a dollhouse sits in the corner and Nerz has lovingly packed books into the fireplace, including at least one textbook on diseases of the breast.

The cancer, which has long since moved into her brain and bones, is bearable in this house, she said. "If I were not here, I would be frustrated all the time."

Nerz has a doctorate in organic chemistry and teaches at Bryn Mawr College; Stormes is executive vice president of Education Dynamics, a marketing firm in Chester that helps colleges recruit students. Both native New Yorkers, the couple settled in the Philadelphia area after Nerz got her doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania.

Stormes and Nerz are the same age: 50. Many women cringe at achieving that milestone. Not Nerz. "With my situation, I was excited about it."

Before moving to Strafford, they lived with their two sons in a "brick box" in another suburb. They decided to buy this weathered green house after Nerz walked through the front door (the original, down to the hinges), took a left, and saw the fireplace.

"I like the cracks," she said of the hearth's 19th-century tile. And next to the front door is a stained-glass window original to the house.

After they moved in, they did not rush to remodel. "Any house I move into, I settle into," she said.

But Nerz acknowledged that her situation has kept them from doing a whole lot. Her prognosis, at diagnosis, was not good. "I couldn't see having a future," she said.

So for the first few years after the cancer diagnosis (she has since had about 300 treatments), she lived on the couch. "It was my haven," Nerz said. After work, she would park herself there, near a blazing fire.

The house has been her refuge. And it has been her punching bag: She has taken her frustrations out on it.

Prior owners committed sins against it, laying turquoise shag carpeting over some original flooring. One day, Nerz just started ripping it out, going up the steps, over landings, into the hall. "It went on like that for days," she said. "The physical work releases the stress."

The changes the couple did make to the house were costly, infrastructure fixes. A new roof cost more than $20,000, Stormes said. They converted the heating system from oil to gas, and they replaced five of the 47 windows. They are holding off on the rest because they want to replace them with something in keeping with the house's look, and that is not cheap. Some of the windows are beveled; many have the original casements.

Of course, they made electrical upgrades, too: This old house's owners are a technically astute bunch. One thing they will not do, Stormes said, is install central air conditioning. Two rooms have individual units, he said, but the house stays cool enough in the summer.

Needless to say, this couple, especially Nerz, loves old. Wall color and window treatments reflect the house's age. An antiques-shop fan, Nerz bought things like the barrister bookcase in the TV room from such sources.

Actually, many of the furnishings were bought for their former house, but they never looked good there, Nerz said. "They worked here."

One room the couple has transformed is the bathroom, which Nerz described as awful before the redo. The couple made that remodeling decision in 2007. "It showed I am going to survive," she said.

Today, the bathroom is light, airy, and delicate. Complete with crown molding and four-foot-high wainscoting, the bathroom has one-foot-square Italian marble tile on the floor, with smaller, randomly spread black glass tile. It also has the original scrollwork vent.

And then, there is the tub; clawfoot, of course. And, of course, it is heavy. "We had to get a mover for the tub," Nerz said; their plumber would not move it.

One night, Nerz said, she could not sleep and walked into the bathroom, which had been gutted at that time, with plywood covering the floors.

"I stepped where there was nothing and fell through. I had one leg dangling in the dining room," she recalled, laughing.

The couple is determined to spend many years in this house. With pride, Nerz said her tumors were shrinking. She helped her oncologist determine the dose of a chemotherapy that has reduced the tumors in her brain and breasts.

Said Stormes: "We will never give up."

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