This is not the story of where it all began; it is the story of how we got where we are.
We began our house hunt after a brief separation when Bug was about two years old. Neither of us likes to talk about it because it was ugly and morose and brings a dark cloud over the life we’ve worked hard to build.
But it’s the truth. Somewhere in our conversations of divorce and loss things turned to hope, renewal, and the desire to persevere.
We didn’t have a lot of money so a fixer-upper was top of mind. We wanted to be close to family. We wanted to stay in the city where we grew up. These things we knew.
When something is right, you just know.
It was built for two families; divided by a grand foyer and large staircase.
I fell in love with the hard wood floors; never caring or realizing what work it takes to keep them up. A claw foot bathtub on the second floor efficiency apartment reminded me of older days and dreams of sinking into bubbles and hot water after a long day.
It was a fixer-upper indeed. The out of date but uniquely charming slate roof needed repairs, drywall was peeling from the dining room, water damage had seeped into the back family room and pieces of wooden chair rail paneling was missing along an entire wall. The chimney in the attic was slowly falling apart and not a speck of insulation to protect from harsh winters.
However, the full attic, built in curio cabinet in the dining room, large rooms, twelve foot ceilings, built in bookcase in the living room, eat in kitchen and silently visible Victorian beauty seeped in despite the house’s glaring flaws.
We said yes. We were young. We signed papers. We got keys. We moved in sparse furniture with the help of a couple of friends. I arranged dishes and glassware. We were homeowners.
I put away toys in the playroom with an excited toddler. I filled bookshelves with ear dogged novels, children’s books and movies. I listened to him run from room to room; no carpet to muffle the sounds of his feet or the creek of the floor boards on the hard wooden floors. We filled the hardwood floors with train tracks, dinosaurs and hot wheels, sometimes all at once.
We bought a puppy and brought my cat home from my father’s house.
We started living.
We saved money for repairs. We went to flea markets and sought out slate to fit the roof. We hodge podgedly put things together room by room as best as we could with the resources we had.
Some repairs never got made. I made do by covering up peeling paint and exposed drywall with posters and pictures. They deterred small hands from messing with the walls.
The house was much bigger than our three person family. We only resided in half of it. We rented the upstairs to friends and family who found themselves in between places, running from bad situations or just waiting for the next step in their lives. We were happy to have this space for them.
We lived what felt like an era in that house. We said goodbye to grandparents who passed on, repainted the outside, birthed two more children, buried cats, rebuilt the porch, picked seasons of daffodils and tulips, remodeled the kitchen, celebrated first birthdays, missed the neighbors that moved away, watched the neighborhood change, spread ourselves throughout the house when others weren’t in need, changed jobs. Saw September 11th and Columbine…
We lived a lifetime. And yet it was only five years.
One day while our world was changing again we decided it was time to go. The neighborhood wasn’t as safe (not that it ever was), the schools were failing. This spacious house both fit and didn’t fit us anymore. We looked for something different. Something that would sustain our next steps. Our future. The kids’ futures.
One day I agreed to look at a house that the realtor had found for us. It was way out in the country. I didn’t even know where I was going. I packed up the kids after work, plied them with promises of McDonald’s on the way and off we went.
The drive. Sooo long. We pulled up to this tiny house. Our current house could eat it for lunch. It was dark out so I sat in the driveway with the high beams on trying to get a good view of the land around the house. The kids begged to get out of the van but I refused. I left them with a flashlight to play with in the van while I walked inside with the realtor.
I hated the house. A storm had torn off part of the roof and there was a giant blue tarp covering it on the outside. The inside had no carpeting, just plywood and a gaping hole in the dining room ceiling from the storm’s damage.
No. I told our realtor that my husband was drunk. There was no way I was going to another fixer-upper when there were still so many things we didn’t finish in the house we had.
She understood. Wanted me to look at the potential. I couldn’t. I loved our house. I hated that it needed so much work still. I hated that we couldn’t pick it up and bring it out here to the country where it would fit in. Where we could keep it safe from the decaying neighborhood. Our house was the family addict that no matter what they did or how bad it got, you forgave and loved them anyway. I couldn’t find the positive in this home. I didn’t see its potential.
But Brian loved it. He begged me to take a second look. In the daylight things will look different he said.
So I packed up the kids again, on a different day when the sun was beginning to go down and signs of spring started to form.
We were the first ones at the house. The kids were restless. They didn’t want to sit in the van again. They wanted to look around too.
I unloaded three curious kids and a couple of playground balls from our van.
The kids ran from the front porch to the back deck trying to grab a peek in the darkened windows.
What was in there?
What room do you think that is mom?
Can you lift me so I can get a better look?
All at once and before I could stop it, magic happened.
Three children ran around a yard bigger than the block our house sat on in the neighborhood. They laughed. They ran after the balls all the while peeking in windows and singing about this was going to be our new home.
It didn’t matter after that what the house looked like on the inside. We didn’t have this in the neighborhood. All at once, the potential became clear.
It was right in front of me, looking out onto three acres, trees, blue sky, and no car horns, police sirens or car radios blaring. Just the sound of kids and silliness.
We knew this was right, just as we knew it with the first house.
We moved at the end of that school year and I cried.
When we finally stopped renting the city house and sold it in 2005, I cried again.
Two weeks ago, I read an article in our old hometown newspaper. The city development team was whining about their depleting funds from a 3.2 million dollar grant to demolish eyesore homes and properties. The county had secured a grant a number of years ago to help them take down empty homes that were falling apart. They have so many that they would be out of money before they could move through the list.
I thought about our old house. In the times I had been through the city recently, I had driven by and thought the house was empty again. The burning bushes in the front had looked over grown and the grass hadn’t been mowed but that was early in the summer.
I did some digging and found that the house was empty again. It was foreclosed. The house was now worth less than what we had paid for it as well as sold it for.
On my last trip to the city I made it a point to stop by the house to see what state it was in.
The siding that the last owners had put on was coming off along the side of the house as well as on the porch. The basement windows on the driveway side were boarded over with plywood.
I approached the front porch putting a foot on the first step and thinking to myself, “Please don’t let me fall through the steps or the porch.” I put my weight down and climbed the stairs to the front door. Next to the door was a notice in big red letters:
Another notice was underneath it. I skimmed over it with my heart beating wildly in my throat:
All at once I was angry.
Why did we sell?
Did we not love it enough?
Why did the city seek money to demolish instead of helping the owners preserve our historic neighborhoods? (Something I never could understand, even when we lived there.)
I got back into the van and drove away. I felt old and beaten down. Like someone had punched me till I couldn’t stand anymore.
Why didn’t we stay? I tried to remember all the reasons we came up with for leaving. I tried to focus on where we are now.
I’ve cried off and on since stopping at the house. Two of my children would never be able to say, “That’s the house I was born in.” Never. One day there would only be a plot of dirt and grass. No visual to retain the memories and plans that were built there. No frame of reference for the history that we created.
It might be silly to hold on something that isn’t yours anymore – but for me, even as I stood on the porch, the one my husband built with his own two hands and still just as solid as the day he pounded in the last nail, I was as attached as ever.
We didn’t start out as a family there but that’s where we became one.
The children were seven, three, and two when we moved. Peanut wasn’t even born yet. The bulk of their memories are in our tiny house in the country. It’s where I will see them graduate high school and hopefully move out and start families of their own and I am happy to make those memories here.
But for a moment frozen in time on that porch in the city, I felt loss and sadness. I whispered to the old house my regrets for not being a better owner and not being able to bring it to the country with me so that it too could forever hear the sound of small feet running across creaking floor boards. I apologetically wept and wished that things had been slightly different; that the house with its large rooms and bigger than life charm would be the one where the kids would be able to say, “That’s where I grew up.”
Thank you Middle Avenue for everything you gave us in those five years. We learned a lot. Thank you for letting us love you, I wish we could’ve done it better. We’re in a good place today. I know you’re not where we started or even where we ended up but thank you for being our Middle.