There was in the eyes a look of anticipation and joy, a far-off look that sought the horizon; one often sees it in seafaring families, inherited by boys and girls alike from men who spend their lives at sea, and are always watching for distant sails or the first loom of the land.–Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of The Pointed Firs
The big brick house has been for sale for over a year, stately, patient in its parklike setting. It has a broad and welcoming doorway with sidelights and a transom; there is a big second story dormer right above that hints at a spacious landing where one could sit with a book in a chaise, cozily afghaned, while the snow flutters down…
I look the listing up on-line; I see a grand staircase with a gleaming bannister, and I see really bad, bad wallpaper throughout.
It would be this house all over again, Mark says. Every wall would have to be changed, every room. And this house had good bones; we don’t know what that house’s bones are like.
He’s right: we are slowing down. Another enormous project–probably not now, not for us. Still, I watch as the price falls lower and lower, and I think: Three FULL bathrooms.
My own bathroom!
A bathroom for each one of us!
Five bedrooms, three and a half baths, over an acre of land…and the price falls down to 104,900. My heart yearns. And then: the open house sign goes up.
I talk the boys into a tour before our Sunday sojourn to Half Price Books. Mark agrees, interested; he wants to see the inside. Jim agrees, reluctant; he loves our current house and neighborhood and does not want to move.
So we take a trip into the past; into bathrooms with pink sinks and turquoise tiles and a houseful of knob and tube wiring. Old coiled metal radiators provide heat; there is no central air. The basement is portioned into tiny musty rooms, and where the washer-dryer should be, the plumbers have excavated the floor down to bare dirt, tracking in new plumbing.
The wonderful antique tile, the grand and welcoming staircase, the bold and gleaming mantle over a working fireplace, the incredible park-like space…they can’t compete with the amount of work that needs to be done. The plaster walls upstairs are crumbling; the raucous wallpaper is all that holds them in place. The slate roof must be replaced.
“It’s a gut job,” says Mark. “It would take a couple hundred thousand just to get it livable.”
Of course, he’s right; we thank Jay, the nice realtor, and we climb into the car and head to Westerville. But a little part of me yearns–for all that space; for all that challenge. For that new landscape.
I have a perfectly lovely house, a house that has all I need, and that offers plenty of projects I can undertake. It’s in a lovely area; we have amazing neighbors. But a little voice natters on about having been here four years, almost five. “When,” it pokes, “have you ever lived anywhere for five whole years?”
Why can’t I just be happy where I am? Why am I always looking toward the next move?
Maybe it’s time to settle in, to embrace the place, a place that welcomes and engages us. It is, for me, surprisingly hard.
When I was six months old, my parents bought a big house on the main street of our little town. We lived in the house for ten years; we added a downstairs bedroom for my brother Dennis as he grew older, more serious, in need of a quiet place to study and read. The house had lovely features–a stairway encased in French doors, gleaming hardwood, spacious, stately rooms. The backyard flowed out into a ‘way-back’ yard, and that butted up against a field which led to a woods. We loved that house; all of us did.
But, the year that I turned ten, the bottom fell out from family finances, and we had to sell the house. We moved to a neighboring city, which meant changing schools. Some of my brothers, entrenched with friends and activities, baseball teams and paper routes, were not happy. But we were moving to a rental near the lake; it had a big yard and a willow tree. I would walk to the beach (if Mom would let me) and I would start a whole new school–a public school, which would be vastly different from my life, to that date, with nuns.
I really couldn’t wait.
I loved that new house, too, although the spiders were enormous, the basement dirt-floored and scary, and the location far, far away from even a corner store to walk to. Still, some summer days, my mother would pack up a picnic lunch and I would walk to the park by the beach with my younger brother; we would swing at the playground and wade in the lake, conscientious about our pledge not to go full-out swimming. We would eat our lunch at a glossy, green-painted picnic table, and trudge home, tired but happy, having had a summer adventure.
I fell asleep at night to the sound of the water pounding the beach. Stormy nights were thrilling.
We stayed a year and moved into town, into a duplex shared with the owners. That neighborhood had three girls just my age; we formed a gang; we read books together, we wrote plays, we knitted. In the green seasons, we played Capture the Flag and Red Rover Red Rover (until Amy broke her collar bone and the game was unanimously banned by all parents); there was a troop of kids, always enough for kickball or wiffleball, enough to put on plays and carnivals. But. We had two fires in that house because of antique heating; there were relationship problems between my clattery family and the quiet, prim landlords. Before two years went by, we moved again.
That new house, also a rental, became somewhat permanent; my parents stayed there until they moved to the tiny retirement apartment where they lived out their lives. I enjoyed living there until college; then I tried out a series of apartments, learned that partying and housekeeping were incompatible, tried hard to grow up and get responsible. I’d fly back to that semi-permanent roost; move out, explore, enjoy, reconsider. I got married; that three-year adventure involved two rented homes. From there I moved to a tiny bachelorette apartment until meeting Mark and deciding, after a somewhat lengthy courtship, to make it legal.
My mother’s family came to the States from Scotland; on one side of the family the men were seafarers. On the other side, they were innkeepers. I always thought that was a nice intertwining: the roving and the rooted.
When they settled in the Buffalo, New York, area, the men got jobs on Great Lakes freighters, or on the docks, close to the pulsing waters if not on them. I often thought you could see the water in their eyes, which were blue and changeable, stormy at times, and serene at others.
My mother had those eyes. I have them, too.
I have never been a world traveler; my journeys have been from the western side of the Northeast to the eastern edges of the Midwest. I just love the adventure, and the possibility, of another move.
Mark owned a snug, sturdy little bungalow when we got married; it was the only home Matt remembered, and we stayed there until he graduated from high school–some ten years. That was a long time for me, but not for Mark, whose family created a homestead in the house they moved into when Mark was six. His mother still maintains that big, red-shingled house, a home base for scattered siblings.
When Matt graduated from high school, we moved; Mark had changed jobs, I had always had a commute, and Jim’s special needs were best met in a different system anyway. Although we loved our neighbors and community, there were compelling reasons to go.
We rented an old inn for a year; it was built in the 1830’s, it had broad plastered rooms, gleaming woodwork, a scary cistern in the dirt-floored basement, and a pathway through the vineyards to the woods.
We bought our house on Orchard Street then and settled in until Mark, four years later, went off to law school.
There, in that law school village, we transformed a trailer on a corner lot, abutting a prairie cornfield; it offered a little more autonomy and a little more equity than a rented apartment would have, and it was a fun experiment in downsizing.
We bought a rambling old house in the town where Mark found his first job after graduating; then, when Mark changed jobs, we were blessed with the chance to buy the house we live in now, with its lovely neighborhood and double lot, its sturdy bones.
I figure I have lived in 13 homes throughout my life–it averages out to a new home every four years and three months, give or take.
Some nights, I look out the window, at the familiar landscape, and I feel a yearning to uproot, to move forward to a new building, new walls. I look at ads in the newspaper, thinking–wouldn’t it be nice to have three full baths? There’s a whole lot we could do with those two extra bedrooms…
I think about blue-eyed wanderers. It seems true in my immediate family–my blue-eyed brother Dennis, too, was a rover, moving as his career dictated; my blue-eyed brother Michael stayed in the same house for a long time, but his naval years might have planted the travel bug. He relocated after retirement, to another state altogether, and as I write this, he and Mary, my sister-in-law, are visiting friends overseas.
Do brown eyes signify an attachment to the solid earth that grounds us? My brown-eyed brothers seem more settled and place-bound; my brown-eyed husband and son want no part of another move.
I sit at my comfortable dining room table, and I write this early on a Sunday morning. Maxie, the feline mayor of the neighborhood, is sleeping mulchily in my flower bed; a troop of five deer tiptoe daintily down my drive. They stop, momentarily, and regard Max; some kind of message slides among them; they ramble off. My dog rumbles lazily at the wildlife outside, but she’s too content to take any kind of action.
Mark spent yesterday re-wiring the old garage, swinging a long metal light fixture to another situation, enlisting James and me as holders and steadiers as he mounted a ceiling fan.
The garage will become his workshop; he has plans to repurpose the paint room downstairs for my craft room; and the south side of the basement is becoming a living suite, an efficiency apartment, a man-cave, for James.
We have carved out a guest room; we have plans to make the two half baths full. This house has all I need, all I want, and then some: character and charm, a lovely community, proximity to work. We have good friends here; there is good food here, and there are some very nice museums. It is an easy hop onto the interstate when a road trip is needed.
It is time now to stay put, time now to claim this particular horizon as my lasting own. No more uprooting, no more home-base exploration is needed (although I reserve the right to make this spot be my true north–the place I can return to from trips far afield.) Now, it is time to say: We are here.
I have a chance, now, to explore my innkeeping, house-holding, heritage. I will hold this house. I will turn my eyes to the possibilities within; I will see what it’s like to stay.